VIDEO: California wildfires growing bigger, moving faster than ever

FILE - In this Sept. 8, 2020, file photo, a table stands outside the destroyed Cressman’s General Store after the Creek Fire burned through Fresno County, Calif. Experts agree that more extreme fire behavior is driven by drought and worsening conditions that they attribute to climate change. Among the most concerning developments is that wildfires can spread far more quickly, leaving less time for warnings or evacuations. (AP Photo/Noah Berger, File)FILE - In this Sept. 8, 2020, file photo, a table stands outside the destroyed Cressman’s General Store after the Creek Fire burned through Fresno County, Calif. Experts agree that more extreme fire behavior is driven by drought and worsening conditions that they attribute to climate change. Among the most concerning developments is that wildfires can spread far more quickly, leaving less time for warnings or evacuations. (AP Photo/Noah Berger, File)
FILE - In this Sept. 5, 2020, file photo, provided by the California National Guard, dozens of people are evacuated to safety on a Cal Guard Chinook, after the Creek Fire in central California left them stranded. A weekend wildfire east of Fresno exploded so fast that it trapped hundreds of holiday campers who were airlifted to safety in a dramatic rescue that strained the limits of two California National Guard helicopters. (California National Guard via AP, File)FILE - In this Sept. 5, 2020, file photo, provided by the California National Guard, dozens of people are evacuated to safety on a Cal Guard Chinook, after the Creek Fire in central California left them stranded. A weekend wildfire east of Fresno exploded so fast that it trapped hundreds of holiday campers who were airlifted to safety in a dramatic rescue that strained the limits of two California National Guard helicopters. (California National Guard via AP, File)

When it comes to California wildfires, it now takes days, not decades, to produce what had been seen as a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.

Last weekend, a fire burning in California’s Sierra National Forest exploded in size, trapping hundreds of Labor Day holiday campers who could only be rescued by helicopters that made a series of white-knuckle flights into the smoke. Fire officials said they’d never seen a fire move so fast in forestland — 15 miles (24 kilometres) in a day.

On Wednesday, a wildfire in Plumas National Forest northeast of San Francisco spread 25 miles (40 kilometres) in a day and devoured an estimated 400 square miles (1,036 square kilometres),

In between those events, a massive fire in Monterey County doubled in size overnight, trapping 14 firefighters who had to deploy their emergency shelters; one was critically injured.

They are only the latest examples of what a half-dozen fire experts agreed is more extreme fire behaviour driven by drought and warming temperatures they attribute to climate change. Among the most concerning developments is that fast-moving wildfires leave less time for warnings or evacuations.

Recently “we have seen multiple fires expand by tens of thousands of acres in a matter of hours, and 30 years or more ago that just wasn’t fire behaviour that we saw,” said Jacob Bendix, a professor of geography and the environment at Syracuse University who studies wildfires.

Hotter temperatures, longer fire seasons and an estimated 140 million dead trees from a five-year drought mean that “fires in California are moving faster and growing larger,” said University of Utah fire expert Philip Dennison.

READ MORE: Smoky skies and air quality concerns impact the Lower Mainland for a second day

Mike Flannigan, who directs the Western Partnership for Wildland Fire Science at Canada’s University of Alberta, remembers the first report of a fire-created thunderstorm in 1986.

“They were rare events, and now they’ve become commonplace,” he said. “It’s because these fires are higher intensity.”

A prime example is the so-called Creek Fire in Sierra National Forest near Yosemite National Park, which exploded through miles of drought- and beetle-killed timber, moving so fast that it trapped hundreds of campers.

“When you have a fire run 15 miles in one day, in one afternoon, there’s no model that can predict that,” U.S. Forest Service forester Steve Lohr said. “”The fires are behaving in such a way that we’ve not seen.”

The phenomenon isn’t restricted to California. Doug Grafe, chief of Fire Protection at the Oregon Department of Forestry, said it was unprecedented in his state for fires this week to spread from the crest of the Cascade Mountains into the valleys below, and so quickly, “carrying tens of miles in one period of an afternoon and not slowing down in the evening — (there is) absolutely no context for that in this environment.”

California already has seen a record 3,900 square miles (10,100 square kilometres) burn and it’s only now is entering what traditionally is the most dangerous time for fires. Labor Day weekend brought record-breaking temperatures across the state that exacerbated what already are drought conditions in a large swath of the state.

On Thursday, a Northern California wildfire was threatening thousands of homes after winds whipped it into a monster that incinerated houses in a small mountain community and killed at least three people.

University of Colorado-Boulder professor Jennifer Balch said measurements of how quickly the hot, dry air is sucking moisture out of fuels are “the highest seen in at least four decades” across major parts of the West.

The abundant dry tinder produces more heat energy, which in turn super-heats the air so it becomes more buoyant and creates a strong updraft that condenses with the smoke plume, “creating its own wind to feed that thunderstorm,” Flannigan said.

The cloud itself is called a pyro-cumulonimbus, which may or may not produce lightning, and strong winds that can pick up burning embers and ignite new fires far in front of the initial blaze.

An extreme example in July 2018 spun off what was then only the second documented “firenado,” killing a firefighter as he helped evacuate residents from a fire in the Northern California city of Redding.

Yet just this month a fire north of Lake Tahoe spun off at least two and as many as four firenadoes, while the Plumas National Forest fire appears to have produced “a handful” overnight Tuesday, said Neil Lareau, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Nevada, Reno.

The Creek Fire produced at least two firenadoes that appeared to touch down Saturday, he said, one straddling an access road to a popular campground at Mammoth Pool Reservoir where 214 people became trapped.

“It’s really kind of a testament to the remarkable extremes that we’re seeing right now,” Lareau said. “It really is kind of this vicious cycle that it gets into, and that’s when the fire really takes off and becomes these unstoppable infernos.”

READ MORE: Crews fight growing California wildfires, including one caused by pyrotechnic gender reveal

Two California National Guard helicopters called in to rescue the trapped campers Saturday night found visibility deteriorating so swiftly that the crews opted to load their aircraft “to the absolute maximum” and well beyond normal safety limits in an unprecedented mission.

On one trip, Chief Warrant Officer 5 Joseph Rosamond and his three-member crew took on 102 desperate campers in a CH-47 Chinook twin-rotor helicopter designed for 30 passengers. A UH-60 Black Hawk ferried 22 evacuees in a helicopter with a normal operating capacity of 11 or 12 passengers.

The overloaded Chinook slowly climbed to 8,000 feet (2,440 metres) to clear surrounding mountains and dense smoke.

“It was an absolute emergency and people’s lives were at stake,” Rosamond recalled. “It was pretty dicey. The charts don’t go that high.”

Such harrowing escapes are only likely to become more common, the experts said.

Columbia University’s Williams said California’s record heat and record acreage burned already this year are part of a trend that has been accelerating for 50 years due to global warming.

“So, while the magnitudes of the current heat wave and the resultant wildfires have been shocking, they’re consistent with what scientists have been predicting for decades,” Williams said in an email.

___

Don Thompson, The Associated Press

CaliforniaCalifornia firesCalifornia wildfiresWildfires

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The District of Stewart has adopted a strategic plan for 2020/21 with six focus areas. (District of Stewart/Facebook)
Stewart adopts 2020 strategic plan

Economy, community areas of focus

Kendra Willems, seen here Nov. 5, created a Facebook page to help facilitate social supports such as clothing donations in an informal manner that supplements existing supports and charities. (Jake Wray/Terrace Standard)
Skeena Voices | ‘We could all use that kind of goodness’

Kendra Willems, new to Terrace, founds charitable Facebook page

Firefighters work to cool a semi truck engine that caught fire at the corner of Eby St. and Hwy 16 around 12:30 p.m. on Nov. 26
Semi truck engine catches fire in Terrace

Hwy 16 briefly closed between Sande Overpass and Eby St.

Skeena MLA Ellis Ross at his swearing in on Thursday (Nov. 26), with his wife, Tracey, left, mother, Frieda, and grandson, Parker. (Ellis Ross photo)
Ellis Ross sworn in as Skeena MLA

Ceremonies happening virtually rather than all in-person in Victoria

Idyllic winter scenes are part of the atmosphere of the holiday season, and are depicted in many seasonal movies. How much do you know about holiday movies? Put your knowledge to the test. (Pixabay.com)
QUIZ: Test your knowledge of holiday movies and television specials

The festive season is a time for relaxing and enjoying some seasonal favourites

Black Press Media and BraveFace have come together to support children facing life-threatening conditions. Net proceeds from these washable, reusable, three-layer masks go to Make-A-Wish Foundation BC & Yukon.
Put on a BraveFace: Help make children’s wishes come true

Black Press Media, BraveFace host mask fundraiser for Make-A-Wish Foundation

A man walks by a COVID-19 test pod at the Vancouver airport in this undated handout photo. A study has launched to investigate the safest and most efficient way to rapidly test for COVID-19 in people taking off from the Vancouver airport. The airport authority says the study that got underway Friday at WestJet’s domestic check-in area is the first of its kind in Canada. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Vancouver Airport Authority *MANDATORY CREDIT*
COVID-19 rapid test study launches at Vancouver airport for departing passengers

Airport authority says that a positive rapid test result does not constitute a medical diagnosis for COVID-19

114 Canadians were appointed Nov. 27 to the Order of Canada. (Governor General of Canada photo)
Indigenous actor, author, elder, leaders appointed to Order of Canada

Outstanding achievement, community dedication and service recognized

More than 60 cm of snow has fallen at Ulkatcho First Nation near Anahim Lake in the Chilcotin since a snowfall warning went into effect Thursday, Nov. 26. (Graham West photo)
VIDEO: More than 60 cm of snowfall in Chilcotin since Thursday, Nov. 26

Graham West of Ulkatcho First Nation captures the scene on video

Screenshot of Pastor James Butler giving a sermon at Free Grace Baptist Church in Chilliwack on Nov. 22, 2020. The church has decided to continue in-person services despite a public health order banning worship services that was issued on Nov. 19, 2020. (YouTube)
2 Lower Mainland churches continue in-person services despite public health orders

Pastors say faith groups are unfairly targeted and that charter rights protect their decisions

A big job: Former forests minister Doug Donaldson stands before a 500-year-old Douglas fir in Saanich to announce preservation of some of B.C.’s oldest trees, July 2019. (B.C. government)
B.C. returning to ‘stand-alone’ forests, rural development ministry

Horgan says Gordon Campbell’s super-ministry doesn’t work

Peter Wilson, left, and Micah Rankin, right, formed the Special Prosecutor team that was tasked with reviewing and litigating charges stemming from the Bountiful investigation. Trevor Crawley photo.
End of Bountiful prosecution wraps up decades of legal battles

Constitutional questions had to be settled before a polygamy prosecution could move forward

Alexandre Bissonnette, who pleaded guilty to a mass shooting at a Quebec City mosque, arrives at the courthouse in Quebec City on February 21, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mathieu Belanger - POOL
Court strikes down consecutive life sentences; mosque shooter has prison term cut

The decision was appealed by both the defence and the Crown

Most Read