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Scorched Earth: California's growing wildfire crisis

California's wildfire crisis is growing. Here's how much worse it could get and the the innovative ways the state is fighting flames.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — People, dried out land and climate are becoming a dangerous combination for wildfire in the West. And Tim Brown from the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nevada and the director of the Western Regional Climate Center says people are responsible for all three.

He’s working to understand our rapidly changing wildfire environment. One part of the growing concern across the West is a policy of aggressive fire suppression, going in and extinguishing a fire quickly instead of letting them burn. But this leaves behind a lot of available fuel for more fires, especially in areas that have seen some of the biggest growth in home building. More people means more fire risk.

One example of this is the 2017 Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa just outside wine country. Extreme fire conditions developed overnight. The fire was spreading so quickly some people couldn’t escape. It wiped-out entire neighborhoods, becoming the second most destructive and the fourth deadliest fire in California history.

But Tim Brown says this fire perimeter is nearly identical to the Hanley fire in 1964. It had much less damage and was much less costly. And now in a warmer, drier world with growing drought concerns, these fires are showing explosive behavior.

Neil Lareau is researching high-impact weather in the western United States, focusing on how fires are creating their own weather extremes, like tornadoes. He says these fire-generated tornadoes behave like they're on steroids compared to the ones we see from thunderstorms.

They are driven by intense heating from fire, creating updrafts as high as 130 mph. Lareau says they are also finding the most intense form of these are linked to fire-generated thunderstorms called pyrocumulonimbus.

The warming climate and drought are all a backdrop to this extreme behavior. Our fire seasons are longer with fuels like grasses and trees staying critically dry. These highly combustible materials can rapidly release a ton of heat and drive some of the extremes that we’re seeing.

Hotter, more intense fires, creating their own weather and making rapid runs toward communities. All of this makes reaction time even more critical.

One tool that is greatly helping is the AlertWildfire camera network. One of its creator’s, Graham Kent from the Nevada Seismological Lab, says the idea started to help the fire service by putting cameras on communication towers from an already existing seismic network. It has now grown to almost 1,000 cameras on two continents.

He says this not only saves time but helps to deploy proper resources. The fire services can start to make decisions on how to scale up or down right away without having to wait for the first fire truck on scene.

When asked what kind of difference the network has made, he goes back to building out the network after the Tubbs Fire. At the time, there weren’t any cameras there, and it was a very confusing environment. People were trying to escape a wave of flames rushing down the hill into the valley.

He says just two years later, a fire nearby was confirmed in the first 10 minutes and evacuations started immediately based on what the fire looked like on the cameras.

But even with all this technology, climate change and drought conditions are exacerbating an already growing wildfire problem. People living in these fire prone areas know more needs to be done from warning, firefighting tactics and mitigation to prevent more destruction and deaths.


Drought, climate change and fire season | Climate Corner with Monica Woods

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