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

Amanda Parsons, a registered nurse on staff at the Northwood Care facility, administers a dose of the Moderna vaccine to Ann Hicks, 77, in Halifax on Monday, Jan. 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan-Pool
61 new COVID-19 cases, two more deaths in Interior Health

Twenty-nine people are in hospital, seven of whom are in intensive care

Team Buchy skipped by Kimberley curler Kaila Buchy are unable to defend their BC junior women's title this year, after CurlBC announced the cancellation of the event due to the pandemic. Photo: CurlBC
CurlBC cancels U18 and U21 championships

With curling clubs closing due to PHO order, CurlBC was forced to cancel U18 and U21 events

Community mental health workers are in high demand, and a new program at Selkirk College will provide opportunities in this field. File Photo
Selkirk College to train community mental health workers

Twelve students will complete two courses enabling them to work in health and human services

Dr. Cori Lausen, bat specialist, has questions about logging in an unusual bat habitat near Beasley. Photo: Submitted
Kaslo biologist questions logging at unique West Kootenay bat site

Dr. Cori Lausen, a bat specialist, studies a population of bats above Beasley

Robbie Campbell lost his livelihood when the pandemic shut down Shambhala Music Festival. Instead, he spent part of 2020 working on a children’s book called Tulip that is now available. Photo: Submitted
In a lousy year, a Kootenay man was saved by a pink T-rex

Robbie Campbell became a children’s author after the pandemic cost him his livelihood

Syringe is prepared with one of B.C.’s first vials of Pfizer vaccine to prevent COVID-19, Victoria, Dec. 22, 2020. (B.C. government)
B.C.’s COVID-19 caseload stays steady with 465 more Tuesday

No new outbreaks in health care facilities, 12 more deaths

New Westminster TV production designer, Rick Whitfield, has designed an office in a box for British Columbians in need of a private workspace. (BC Box Office photo)
PHOTOS: B.C. man designs ‘box office’ solution for those working from home

‘A professionally designed workspace on your property, away from the distractions of home’

Chilliwack ER doctor Marc Greidanus is featured in a video, published Jan. 18, 2021, where he demonstrates and describes effectiveness of various styles of masks. (Youtube)
VIDEO: Emergency room doctor runs through pros and cons of various masks

‘We’ve been asked to wear a mask and it’s not that hard,’ Greidanus says.

(Pixabay photo)
VIDEO: Tip to Metro Vancouver transit police helps woman 4,000 km away in Ohio

Sgt. Clint Hampton says transit police were alerted to a YouTube video of the woman in mental distress

A woman types on her laptop in Miami in a Monday, Dec. 12, 2016, photo illustration. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Wilfredo Lee
British Columbia government lax on cybersecurity practices, auditor reports

The audit did not highlight a specific threat, but it found breaches in cybersecurity are increasing globally

Cranbrook Food Bank coordinator Deanna Kemperman, Potluck Cafe Society executive director Naved Noorani and Sunshine Coast Community Services Society executive director Catherine Leach join B.C.’s new Municipal Affairs Minister Josie Osborne on a video call about B.C. gaming grants, Jan. 19, 2021. (B.C. government)
B.C. gaming grants reorganized for COVID-19 priorities

Minister highlights community kitchens, food banks

(Pixabay photo)
‘Cocaine bananas’ arrive at Kelowna grocery stores after mix up from Colombia: RCMP

Kelowna RCMP recently concluded an international drug investigation after finding cocaine in local grocers’ banana shipments in 2019

A new video from NCCIH and BC Northern Health titled ‘Healing in Pandemic Times: Indigenous Peoples, Stigma and COVID-19’ was animated by Joanne Gervais. (Photo Provided By: NCCIH Archives)
VIDEO: Stigma against Indigenous people is a ‘social sickness’

A new short animated video is aiming to educate the public on the stigmatization

A pinniped was attacked by an unseen predator off the shores of Dallas Road Monday night. (Courtesy of Steffani Cameron)
VIDEO: Seal hunting, not being hunted in video shot off Victoria waterfront

Victoria woman captures footage of pinniped activity off Dallas Road

Most Read