The sheer expanse of the fires burning in the West and the vast plume of smoke they’ve generated boggles the mind.
Horrendous air qualities were recorded up and down the West Coast Thursday. Smoke which lingered just above the surface of the immediate fires Wednesday settled to the ground across the area, turning day into an orange-colored version of night.
And it isn’t just West Coast states which are home turf to fires. Blazes are being reported in Idaho, Montana, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico as well. Rain and snow in Colorado slowed fire growth there Tuesday and Wednesday, though a return to warmer weather looms in the coming week.
The smoke was so thick in San Francisco that computer forecast models couldn’t keep up with it and over-forecast ground level temps. The sun was so thoroughly screened by the smoke, the cooling effect overwhelming model temperature forecasts.
Remote sensing engineer Antonio Vecoli noted the smoke from the fires not only covered a swath of the West Coast under a choking, sun-blocking shroud, but also extended more than 600 miles out into the Pacific.
Fire is no stranger in the West, but researchers are looking into how their increasing frequency might change the character of wooded areas. There has been a school of thought that more frequent fires might ultimately decrease the probability of future fire.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be what’s been happening. Burned areas come back, as so-called “reburns” decrease in short ranges of time but the total number of them has actually increased according to some preliminary research.
This isn’t a forest management issue alone. Increased temperatures and precipitation shortfalls are major contributing factors.
Of the weather leading into the current spate of fires in the West, UCLA climate researcher Dr. Daniel Swain notes:
“Probably not a surprise to anyone who just lived through it, but August 2020 was the warmest August on record in California–as well as Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico! In California, the long-term late summer warming trend is quite clear.”
Weather forecasts project a return to heat and above normal temperatures, and a continuation of drier than normal weather.
Climate researcher Daniel Swain UCLA’s Institute on the Environment and Sustainability said abnormal August warmth helped set the stage for the vicious round of fires now underway across the West.
“Probably not a surprise to anyone who just lived through it, but August 2020 was the warmest August on record in California–as well as Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico! In California, the long-term late summer warming trend is quite clear,” Swain said.
AON Insurance meteorologist Steve Bowen analyzed the largest fires of the past 70 years, and placed current fires in four of the top nine slots.
“The North Complex Fire has explosively grown in size to 252,163 acres. California now has four of its Top 9 currently active,” Bowen said.