Wildfire fears loom amid heat wave in the West

Longer wildfire season prompts changes in management practices

A firefighter walks along a wildfire burning on a hillside in Castaic, Calif. on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu) (Ringo H.W. Chiu, AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

ORLANDO, Fla. – Extreme heat advisories and warnings continue across the West Coast as an upper-level high slowly passes by. That means a lot of heat and little to no rain.

California is currently under a state of emergency as the heat wave threatens rolling blackouts on power grids which could lead to more heat-related illness calls among its residents. The fear of wildfires is very real to many that live in the drought-stricken areas, as triple-digit heat and no rain are expected to linger beyond Labor Day.

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Excessive heat warnings and advisories in the western United States have been in place the last few days and will continue through the Labor Day holiday. Many heat records are expected to be broken over the next several days. (WKMG)

Florida has its fair share of drought and wildfires as does much of the United States, but the West is experiencing an extended fire season pattern in recent years. Let’s have a closer look at fire seasons both here and there.

A Little Background

Historically, Florida wildfire season runs from March to the arrival of the rainy season in late May or early June. California typically runs from May through October, but in recent years has even seen wildfires extend into the winter months. This has prompted change with wildland firefighting agencies in both the hiring, training and workforce fatigue mitigation. Traditionally, wildland firefighters were needed mainly in the summer months, but now that fires are burning longer, the need for year-round firefighters is in demand.

Current Statistics

The Florida Fire Service has reported that from January 1 through August 28, a total of 146,870 acres have burned in the state in 2,142 incidents. Meanwhile in California, the state fire service reports 202,684 acres have burned in 5,828 incidents so far this year.

Fire Variables

There are four main meteorological variables that affect the length of fire seasons. These variables are maximum temperatures, minimum relative humidity, the number of rain free days and the maximum wind speeds.

In other words, when you combine very hot temperatures with low relative humidity and add hardly any rain and strong winds to the mix, this set up makes wildfires more likely to spread and can lengthen fire seasons.

Currently, California is experiencing severe, extreme and exceptional drought conditions. These conditions have expanded in the Northwest as warm, dry conditions continue.

Drought expanded in the Northwest was warm, dry conditions continued across the region. California experiencing severe, extreme, and exceptional drought conditions across the state. (wkmg)

Other variables include lightning and human efforts to suppress the fires and whether or not there’s enough fuel (vegetation) to sustain them.

Our Changing Climate

A firetruck drives along California Highway 96 as the McKinney Fire burns in Klamath National Forest, Calif., Saturday, July 30, 2022. (AP Photo/Noah Berger) (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

The Environmental Protection Agency, along with California, also attributes the longer fire season to climate change. Winter snows have been melting earlier and rain is has been coming later in the fall. This leaves the state in moderate to extreme drought before the scorching summer begins.

The dry conditions combined with above-normal temperatures leaves vegetation with less moisture, increasing the risk for fire danger. In addition to extended drought, there are insects such as pine beetles killing off trees and invasive species like cheat grass taking over that ignites easily and spreads rapidly. The end result are wildfires that are harder to control which means they last longer.

Autumn Looms

Earlier we mentioned that high wind speeds are a variable that impact the length of fire season. According to California climate reports, the windiest time of the year is from October to May. The Santa Ana winds in southern California and the Diablo winds in the northern part of the state are strong, dry, downslope winds that move through the mountains and toward the coast. NOAA reports that these winds can, and have, reached up to hurricane strength, which increases the speed a fire spreads. The result, more destruction over a shorter period of time.

Flames come close to houses during the on Oct. 27, 2020 in Chino Hills, California. Strong Santa Ana Winds gusting to more than 90 mph drove fires across thousands of acres, grounding firefighting aircraft, forcing tens of thousands of people to flee and gravely injuring two firefighters. (2020 Getty Images)

Think of all the variables mentioned like this. The rainy season is ending earlier ahead of the long and hot summer which continues the drought and dries out vegetation. Add in the strong autumn winds to any fire that is sparked and these events not only spread faster, but are hotter.

The Western Fire Chief’s Association reports that while there may be fewer fires in September and October, those that do happen are actually far more destructive and burn more acreage. Heavy rainfall usually signifies the end of the California fire season similar to Florida, but with the rain arrival in the West being delayed more and more each year, this keeps fires burning into the winter months. This is why wildland firefighting agencies have experimented with the year-round fire season.

Efforts in Wildfire Management

Chart shows the excessive wet period leading up to the dry period during the Wildland Fires of Florida in 1998. From March to July Melbourne and Daytona Beach were in a rainfall deficit of up to 12 inches compared to average values. (NWS)

After the fires of 1998 destroyed nearly 500-thousand acres in Florida, the prescribed burn law was strengthened. Burn manager certification programs educated land managers on the weather and landscape conditions in order to provide controlled burns to keep the forests from building up with flammable growth like grasses and brush. The result from prescribed burns keeps the undergrowth limited which prevents fires from becoming uncontrollable, keeping people and their property safe.

The Florida Wildlife Commission has reported these burns also help wildlife management, stating that many species’ very existence depends on the natural habitat’s ability to produce enough of the right food. The fires promote new growth full of nutrition like flowers, fruits and seeds.

Smoke from prescribed burns north of Orlando fills the metro sky.

Western states haven’t been so lucky as the South. Prescribed or controlled burns aren’t as popular and are often suspended due to large fires burning and the record-dry conditions in addition to other weather elements, which makes a safe burn unsafe.

There have been other efforts made to preserve the land and protect the people. CAL FIRE has removed dead trees, cleared vegetation and created fuel breaks to prevent further spread of massive wildfires, in addition to experimenting with more manpower.

A staggering 90% of wildfires are caused by humans, according to information provided by the USDA.

FILE - In this Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020 file photo, a jogger runs along McCovey Cove outside Oracle Park in San Francisco, under darkened skies from wildfire smoke.Health problems tied to climate change are all getting worse, according to two reports published in the medical journal Lancet on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021. An unprecedented Pacific Northwest and Canadian heat wave hit this summer, which a previous study showed couldn't have happened without human-caused climate change. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

This statistic prompted a big community response for those who live in fire-prone areas. Increased community engagement has led to adaptation and risk reduction. Best practices include designing a wildfire-resistant home which reduces the contact between the flame and the structure. For example, fire-smart landscaping uses fire-resistant plants placed strategically away from the home to prevent the spread of fire to the building. Hardscaping like pavers or gravel are used closest to the home to create a barrier that’s fuel-free, keeping fires at bay.

People help clear a fire line along a family member's home near a wildfire on the outskirts of Las Vegas, N.M., on Monday, May 2, 2022. Wind-whipped flames are marching across more of New Mexico's tinder-dry mountainsides, forcing the evacuation of area residents and dozens of patients from the state's psychiatric hospital as firefighters scramble to keep new wildfires from growing.(AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio) (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

People that live in fire-prone areas are also advised to stay educated on fire safety and know evacuation routes in the event they have to flee their homes. Also, knowing fire safety while camping or other recreational activities is key to preventing additional fires to those that occur naturally, like from lightning, etc.

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About the Author:

Emmy Award Winning Meteorologist Samara Cokinos joined the News 6 team in September 2017. In her free time, she loves running and being outside.