Fire Blogs

A Quiet But Deadly 2013 U.S. Fire Season

By Dr. Jeff Masters
Published: December 23, 2013
It was an unexpectedly quiet and deadly year for wildfires in the U.S. in 2013. The 4.2 million acres burned ranked as the 2nd lowest amount in the past ten years, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC.) The total number of wildfires was just over 43,100, which was well below the ten-year average of about 68,000 fires, and the lowest number since accurate record keeping began in the early 1980s. According to meteorologist Steve Bowen of Aon Benfield in an interview with USA Today, total wildfire economic damages during the year were approximately $700 million, or 46% below the 10-year average of $1.3 billion. However, 2013 was the third deadliest wildfire season for firefighters since records began in 1910, with 34 firefighters perishing.





The deadly Yarnell Hill, Arizona fire
On June 30, 2013, the third deadliest wildfire in U.S. history, Arizona's Yarnell Hill Fire, took the lives of 19 firefighters with the Prescott Fire Department's interagency Granite Mountain Hotshots. Close watch was on the weather during the fire, as temperatures hit 100° and winds gusted over 20 mph. However, a line of thunderstorms caused winds to increase and shift, gusting to over 40 mph, and changing direction from west-southwest to north-northeast. This rapid change in the winds caught the firefighters off guard, allowing the fire to quickly grow from 300 acres to 2,000 acres. It was this wind event with persistent hot temperatures and dry surface conditions that caused the erratic wildfire behavior and killed the 19 out of 20 Hotshots crew.


Video 1. The June 30, 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona as seen from the air.


Figure 1. The Yarnell Hill Fire was the third deadliest wildfire in U.S. history. Image credit: ecowest.org.

Didn't they say something about a record-breaking fire year? What happened?!
During the winter of 2012 and 2013, the nation was in the worst drought conditions since 2000 due to below normal snow pack across the West, according to the US Drought Monitor. The snowfall maps below show the percent of average snow pack over the Four Corners and Great Basin, respectively, measured April 1st, 2013 by the NRCS.





The chart below shows percent of drought conditions across the Contiguous U.S, with Exceptional Drought in dark red, Extreme Drought in red, Severe Drought in orange, Moderate Drought in tan, and Abnormally Dry in yellow.



As you can see from this chart, we started off 2013 at nearly the driest conditions across the U.S. since 2000, with nearly 80% of the country abnormally dry and over 6% in exceptional drought conditions. Due to the dry conditions, fire management agencies were expecting an exceptionally active fire season, since dry conditions in 2011 and 2012 caused historic fire years. (For example, the massive Wallow Fire in 2011 burned 538,000 acres in AZ and NM; the Whitewater-Baldy fire in 2012 was the largest single fire in New Mexico's history, at 297,845 acres; and the devastating 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado was the most destructive fire in state history, with 346 homes burned.)

So what happened? During the summer of 2013, the Southwest benefited from a much wetter and more active monsoon season than in previous two years, which led to one of their wettest summers on record. For example, Colorado and the Four Corners reported record to near record wet conditions from July - November. Additionally, an active weather pattern across the Southeast U.S. brought near record wet conditions to Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas. Traditionally, these two regions account for a large percentage of the annual acreage burned for the US. As you can see from the the NOAA statewide rank anomaly map below, for July - November, California was one of the few states that was dry during the peak part of fire season. This was a result of the quasi-stationary ridge of high pressure over the East Pacific for the majority of the year.



To a certain degree, luck was a significant component this year, as a major weather event like the 2008 Lighting Bust or the 2007 Santa Ana wind event simply did not occur in 2013. The Rim Fire, which burned into Yosemite National Park and ended up being the third largest wildfire in California history, was caused by a hunter's illegal campfire. The fire eventually consumed over a quarter million acres, and shows what the potential of the 2013 California wildfire season could have been if weather played a greater role.

Have a great Christmas, everyone, and I'll be back on Friday with a new post.

Jeff Masters, with major help from wunderground's fire weather expert, Kari Strenfel

California Closes in on Driest Calendar Year on Record

By Chris Burt
Published: December 20, 2013
California Closes in on Driest Calendar Year on Record

In mid-October, and again mid-November, I posted blogs concerning how dry the year had been in California, ending each blog with the optimistic caveat that the wet season was just beginning and there was plenty of time to catch up precipitation-wise before the end of the year. Well, it turns out that was nothing more than optimism. With only 10 days left and the latest forecast models indicating a close to zero chance for any further significant precipitation to fall in the state, it now appears virtually certain to become California’s driest calendar year on record. Needless to say, California is one of the most water hungry places on earth.

As if to add insult to injury a very unusual late-season wildfire broke out in the Big Sur area along California’s central coast on Tuesday December 17th. The fire burned just 1000 acres but 34 homes were lost. This would appear to be the most destructive December wildfire in central or northern California history and the worst fire in all of California this past year (2013) so far as homes lost. Red flag warnings have never previously been issued for this region during the month of December.



An aerial view of the Big Sur fire last Wednesday. Still from video by KRON/NBC News, San Francisco.

Below is a chart of how much rain has fallen at some select California locations since January 1st (as of December 20th). The annual normal and percentage of such so far this year are in the other two columns:



With no more rain forecast for at least the southern two-thirds of the state until the end of the year, it appears that both San Francisco and Los Angeles will end up experiencing their driest calendar years on record. The previous record for San Francisco downtown was 9.00” in 1917 (POR back to Nov. 1849) and for Los Angeles downtown 4.08” in 1953 (with a POR back to 1877). It is simply astounding by how large a margin San Francisco will beat its previous record (a margin of about 40%!) and this for a period of record going back over 160 years, one of the oldest continuous records for precipitation in the U.S.

Many other locations around the state are also likely to record their driest year. Below is a summary of sites in the southern California area and where they stand vis-à-vis record territory:



Since the table was created on December 15th some additional rainfall has fallen at a few of the sites listed including downtown Los Angels with .11”, Burbank with .18”, and Santa Maria with .03”. Notice how Paso Robles (which received no measurable rainfall since December 15th) is on track to beat its former driest year on record by more than 50% and may end up even drier than Death Valley this year (see charts above)! Table produced by NWS-Los Angeles.

It is not just California that has been so dry but also much of the Pacific Northwest. Eugene, Oregon has received only 21.08” of precipitation so far this year (as of December 20th) against a normal of 46.10”. Its driest year on record was 1944 when 23.26” was measured (POR to 1891). Snowfall is also running well below average as the map below indicates:



A map of the percentage of average water content of the snow pack as of December 15th across the western U.S. WRCC data.

I will have a comprehensive round up of the annual precipitation totals and records after the New Year.

Christopher C. Burt
Weather Historian

Australia Endures Another Dangerous Fire Weather Day; Lorenzo Dissipates

By Dr. Jeff Masters
Published: October 24, 2013
Sydney, Australia and the Blue Mountains have endured a second day of dangerous fire weather conditions without a devastating fire catastrophe ensuing. The high temperature in Sydney on Thursday hit 73°F, with sustained winds of 30 mph gusting to 41 mph, and a humidity as low as 7%. The temperature was nearly 20°F cooler than on Wednesday, but the strong winds and low humidity helped fan the 56 fires still burning across the state of New South Wales. Tragically, a fire-fighting aircraft crashed Thursday during a mission to douse one of the fires, killing the pilot and starting a new fire. The fires have burned more than 120,000 hectares (300,000 acres), and have a perimeter of about 1,600 km (990 miles), and are being blamed for two deaths and over $97 million in damage. Australia has just had its hottest September on record, and the 12-month period ending in August 2013 set a record for the hottest 12-month period in Australian history. Australia's warmest summer and 3rd warmest winter on record occurred during this 12-month period. It has also been quite dry in the fire region over the past few months, with sol moisture levels in the lowest 10% historically. However, the latest drought statement from the Bureau of Meteorology is not showing that long-term drought conditions exist.


Figure 1. Volunteer Christelle Gilmore cares for 'Phoenix', an orphaned baby Swamp Wallaby burned in the Springwood fires on October 22, 2013 in Castlereagh, Australia. Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images.

Raymond weakens, moves away from Mexico
Tropical Storm Raymond continues to move away from the coast of Mexico, and will no longer bring heavy rains to the country. Recent satellite loops show that Raymond is a poorly-organized tropical storm, with just a modest area of heavy thunderstorms.


Figure 2. Rainfall over Mexico from October 15 - 23 from Hurricane Raymond totaled close to 10" near Acapulco, as estimated by NASA's TRMM satellite. Fortunately, Raymond did not move ashore, or else the 15+" inches of rain that fell offshore would have fallen over land. Image credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

Tropical Storm Lorenzo dies in the Middle Atlantic
Tropical Storm Lorenzo has died in the Middle Atlantic, done in by high wind shear. None of the reliable computer models for tropical cyclone genesis are predicting any new storms developing in the coming five days. During the first week of November, the Madden Julian Oscillation (MJO), a pattern of increased thunderstorm activity near the Equator that moves around the globe in 30 - 60 days, will bring rising air over the Caribbean, increasing the odds of a tropical storm developing then.

Typhoons Francisco and Lekima weaken
Typhoon Francisco has weakened to a tropical storm, and is bringing heavy rains to Japan as it stays offshore and heads northeast, parallel to the coast. Super Typhoon Lekima, which stayed at Category 5 status for a day and a half, has now weakened to a Category 4 storm with 150 mph winds. Satellite loops show that Lekima is still an impressive typhoon with a prominent eye surrounded by a solid ring of eyewall clouds with very cold cloud tops. Lekima is predicted to recurve to the northeast without affecting any land areas. While Lekima was at peak strength between 12 and 18 UTC on Wednesday, its eye expanded greatly in size while the storm stayed at Category 5 strength, something that is very unusual to see (thanks to Scott Bachmeier of the University of Wisconsin CIMSS for the info and animation.)


Figure 3. MODIS satellite image of Super Typhoon Lekima, taken at approximately 01:05 UTC on October 24, 2013. At the time, Lekima was a Category 5 super typhoon with winds of 160 mph. Image credit: NASA.

Jeff Masters
Categories:Fire Hurricane

Australia Avoids a Fire Catastrophe; Raymond Spares Mexico; Lekima a Cat 5

By Dr. Jeff Masters
Published: October 23, 2013
Sydney, Australia and the Blue Mountains to its west endured extreme fire weather conditions on Wednesday without catastrophe, as "aggressive" and "high-risk" fire fighting strategies kept the 71 fires burning in New South Wales from causing major devastation. "The broader risk to a much larger, more widespread population has certainly eased," said Shane Fitzsimmons, a fire official for the region. The fire conditions in the region were about as bad as it gets on Wednesday. The high temperature in Sydney hit 92°F, with sustained winds of 34 mph gusting to 47 mph, and a humidity as low as 4%. Temperatures are expected to be cooler on Thursday, but westerly winds blowing from the dry interior of Australia will still be blowing strongly, keeping fire danger extreme. Insurance claims from the huge fires that have ravaged areas just west of Sydney over the past week are already set to exceed $97 million (U.S. dollars), according to The Insurance Council of Australia, even though the worst-hit areas have not been assessed yet. This price tag already makes the disaster Australia's fifth most expensive fire on record, according to EM-DAT, the international disaster database. Wunderground's weather historian Christopher C. Burt has a new post on the history of Australian wild fires.


Figure 1. Smoke from fires burning over Southeast Australia streams out over the ocean near Sydney, Australia, due to strong westerly winds. MODIS photo taken at 03:15 UTC on October 23, 2013. Image credit: NASA

Fires worsened by Australia's hottest September on record
Australia has just had its hottest September on record, and the 12-month period ending in September 2013 set a record for the hottest 12-month period in Australian history. Australia's warmest summer and 3rd warmest winter on record occurred during this 12-month period. It has also been quite dry in the fire region over the past few months, with soil moisture levels in the lowest 10% historically for this time of year. However, the latest drought statement from the Bureau of Meteorology is not showing that long-term drought conditions exist.


Figure 2. Running means for the departure of temperature from average (the anomaly) for Australia for 12-month periods ending 31 August 2013. Vertical grid lines mark 12-month periods commencing January 1920, January 1930, etc. Australian temperatures are now, on average, more than 1°C warmer than during the 1950s. Image credit: Australian Bureau of Meteorology.

Climate Change and Australian fires
“Climate change is increasing the risk of more frequent and longer heat waves and more extreme hot days, as well as exacerbating bushfire conditions.” So said the independent non-profit Australia Climate Council in a report on the record September 2013 heat in Australia. In April 2013, the group (then called the Australia Climate Commission) published a report, "The Critical Decade: Extreme Weather", which gave an excellent overview of climate change and wild fires in Australia. According to the report, " many regions have already experienced an increase in extreme fire weather as indicated by changes in the Forest Fire Danger Index (FFDI). The main contributors to this increase are prolonged periods of low rainfall and the increased frequency and intensity of extreme heat. The FFDI increased significantly at 16 of 38 weather stations across Australia between 1973 and 2010, with none of the stations recording a significant decrease. The increase has been most prominent in southeast Australia, and has been manifest as a longer duration fire season, with fire weather extending into November and March. The opportunity for fuel reduction burning is reducing as fire seasons have become longer. Overall, this means that fire prone conditions and vulnerability to fire are increasing. The projected increases in hot days across the country, and in consecutive dry days and droughts in the southwest and southeast, will very likely lead to increased frequencies of days with extreme fire danger in those regions."

Australia's Climate Commission was defunded after the new government led by Prime Minister Tony Abbott took power in September 2013, writes Brian Kahn at climatecentral.org. However, the commissioners banded together and used crowd-funding to raise $1 million to start the non-profit Climate Council, a nonprofit organization aimed at providing climate information on Australia to the public. The Council is planning to release a report specifically about wildfires in November 2013. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who is a volunteer fire fighter, and famously said in 2009 that the science behind climate change is “absolute crap”. On Wednesday, he remarked: "Climate change is real, as I've often said, and we should take strong action against it. "But these fires are certainly not a function of climate change--they're just a function of life in Australia."

Raymond weakens to a tropical storm; threat diminishes for Mexico
Tropical Storm Raymond continues to spin just offshore of Acapulco, Mexico, but its top winds have weakened to 65 mph. As of 8 am EDT Wednesday, Raymond was stationary, and centered about 190 miles west-southwest of Acapulco. Raymond brought 7.05" of rain Saturday through Tuesday to Acapulco. All watches and warnings have been discontinued for the coast of Mexico, but Raymond is expected to bring an additional 1 - 2" of rain to the coast. Raymond is in an area with weak steering currents, but a ridge of high pressure is forecast to build in later Wednesday and force the storm west-southwestwards, away from the coast. Recent satellite loops show the weakening trend of Raymond, and wunderblogger Lee Grenci has a new post discussing the causes.


Figure 3. MODIS satellite image of Hurricane Raymond, taken at approximately 2:30 pm EDT on October 22, 2013. At the time, Raymond was a Category 1 hurricane with winds of 75 mph. Image credit: NASA.

Tropical Storm Lorenzo in the Atlantic no threat
Tropical Storm Lorenzo continue to head eastwards into the Middle Atlantic, and will not be a threat to any land areas. Satellite loops show that Lorenzo has a small area of heavy thunderstorms, which are being pushed to the southeast side of Lorenzo's center of circulation by strong upper-level winds out of the northwest that are creating high levels of wind shear. The shear is forecast to remain in the high range through Friday, which will likely destroy the storm by then.

Typhoon Francisco weakening, but will still bring heavy rain to Japan
Typhoon Francisco continues to weaken, due to cool waters and increasing wind shear, and is now a Category 1 storm with 80 mph winds. Francisco is traversing a large cool patch of ocean left behind by the churning action of Typhoon Wipha last week. Francisco will make its closest approach to Japan on Thursday and Friday, and will likely be a tropical storm undergoing transition to an extratropical storm. Although the latest computer model guidance keeps Francisco well offshore from Japan, the storm will still bring plenty of tropical moisture over Japan, which will be capable of causing mostly minor flooding problems.

Super Typhoon Lekima reaches Category 5 strength
The Western Pacific has made up for a slow start to its typhoon season, and has now cranked out its third Category 5 super typhoon of the year. Super Typhoon Lekima intensified to Category 5 status about 1,500 miles southeast of Japan at 18 UTC on Tuesday, joining Super Typhoon Francisco, Super Typhoon Usagi, and Tropical Cyclone Phailin as the four members of 2013's Category 5 club. Four Cat 5s is a fairly typical number of these top-end storms for Earth to experience in one year. Satellite loops show an impressive typhoon with a prominent eye surrounded by a solid ring of eyewall clouds with very cold cloud tops. Lekima is predicted to recurve to the northeast without affecting any land areas.


Figure 4. MODIS satellite image of Typhoon Francisco (left) and Super Typhoon Lekima (right), taken at approximately 02 UTC on October 23, 2013. At the time, Lekima was a Category 5 super typhoon with winds of 160 mph, and Typhoon Francisco was at Category 1 strength with 80 mph winds. Image credit: NASA.

Jeff Masters
Categories:Fire Hurricane

As Bad as it Gets: Fire Conditions in Australia; Raymond Weakens, Deluging Mexico

By Dr. Jeff Masters
Published: October 22, 2013
Sydney, Australia and the Blue Mountains to its west are bracing for weather conditions that will bring extreme fire danger, with temperatures on Wednesday that are expected to be in the upper 80s, humidities less than 10%, and sustained winds of 15 -25 mph, gusting to 40 mph. These conditions will be "about as bad as it gets", said Shane Fitzsimmons, a fire official for the region. Insurance claims from the huge fires that have ravaged areas just west of Sydney over the past week are already set to exceed $97 million (U.S. dollars), according to The Insurance Council of Australia, even though the worst-hit areas have not been assessed yet. This price tag already makes the disaster Australia's fifth most expensive fire on record, according to EM-DAT, the international disaster database. Australia's just had its hottest September on record, and the 12-month period ending in August 2013 set a record for the hottest 12-month period in Australian history. Australia's warmest summer and 3rd warmest winter on record occurred during this 12-month period.

Wunderground's weather historian Christopher C. Burt has a new post on the history of Australian wild fires. The most expensive and deadly fires in Australian history occurred on Black Saturday, February 7, 2009. Those fires killed 173 people, injured 414, and destroyed 2,029 homes, causing $1.3 billion in damage.

Wunderground member AussieStorm posted this link to a photoalbum of fire pictures taken by residents of the Sydney area.


Figure 1. On October 21, 2013, dozens of wildfires continued to burn in New South Wales, Australia. The fires had already destroyed more than 200 homes, and Australian authorities were concerned that hot, windy weather could exacerbate the situation. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite acquired this image at 2:25 p.m. local time (3:25 Universal Time) on October 21. Red outlines indicate hot spots where MODIS detected unusually warm surface temperatures associated with fire.The largest fire shown here is the State Mine fire, which was burning in the Blue Mountains. The fire had burned more than 42,750 hectares, according to the New South Wales Rural Fire Service. Image credit: NASA Earth Observatory.

Hurricane Raymond weakens, but still drenching Mexico
Hurricane Raymond continues to spin just offshore of Acapulco, Mexico, as a Category 2 hurricane with 105 mph winds. As of 11 am EDT Tuesday, Raymond was stationary, centered about 135 miles west-southwest of Acapulco. Raymond brought 5.67" of rain Saturday through Monday to Acapulco, where a Hurricane Watch is posted. Raymond is expected to bring heavy rains of up to 12" to the coast, and this is an area where heavy rains are definitely most unwelcome. Hurricane Manuel hit this region of Mexico with extreme torrential rains when it made landfall on September 15, triggering deadly mudslides and flooding that left 169 people dead or missing and caused $4.2 billion in damage. According to EM-DAT, the International Disaster Database, this was the second most expensive weather-related disaster in Mexican history, behind the $6 billion in damage (2013 dollars) wrought by Hurricane Wilma in October 2005.

Raymond is in an area with weak steering currents, and is likely to show some erratic movement until Wednesday, when a ridge of high pressure is forecast to build in and force the storm west-southwestwards, away from the coast. Recent satellite loops show a weakening trend, as the southeast eyewall is now missing, and the storm's heavy thunderstorms have diminished in intensity. This weakening may be due to the colder waters from below that Raymond's winds have churned to the surface. An Air Force hurricane hunter aircraft will investigate Raymond on Tuesday afternoon.

Wunderblogger Lee Grenci has a detailed look at the ocean temperatures and steering flow affecting Raymond.


Figure 2. MODIS satellite image of Hurricane Raymond, taken at 3:30 pm EDT on October 21, 2013. At the time, Raymond was at peak strength, a Category 3 storm with winds of 125 mph. Image credit: NASA.

Tropical Storm Lorenzo forms in the Middle Atlantic
The 12th Atlantic named storm of 2013, Tropical Storm Lorenzo, was born on Monday afternoon. Lorenzo's formation brings this year's Atlantic tally to 12 named storms, which is one more than the long term average. However, Lorenzo is going to be one of those weak, short-lived tropical storms that likely would have been missed before satellites came along in the 1960s. There have been three other weak, short-lived tropical storms in 2013 that stayed far out to sea that may have been missed before satellites came along--Dorian, Erin, and Jerry. There has been a large increase in the number of "shorties"--Atlantic tropical storms lasting two days or less--since the 1950s, as discussed by Villarini et al. (2011), in their paper, Is the recorded increase in short‐duration North Atlantic tropical storms spurious?

Satellite loops show that Lorenzo has a modest area of heavy thunderstorms, which are pushed to the east side of Lorenzo's center of circulation by strong upper-level winds out of the southwest. Wind shear is moderate, 15 - 20 knots, but is expected to increase to the high range by Tuesday night, giving Lorenzo a rather short life. The storm will not be a threat to any land areas.


Figure 3. Latest satellite image of Lorenzo.

Typhoon Francisco weakening, likely to miss Japan
Typhoon Francisco has steadily weakened since becoming Earth's third Category 5 storm of 2013 on Saturday, and is now a Category 1 storm with 85 mph winds. Francisco is now traversing a large cool patch of ocean up to 2°C colder than the surrounding waters, left behind by the churning action of Typhoon Wipha last week. By the time Francisco makes its closest approach to Japan on Thursday and Friday, it will be a tropical storm undergoing transition to an extratropical storm. However, the latest computer model guidance keeps Francisco well offshore from Japan, and the storm's heaviest rains will miss the country. This is good news for Japan, which is still cleaning up from the record rains that Typhoon Wipha brought last week.

Impressive Typhoon Lekima hits Category 4 strength
The Western Pacific has made up for a slow start to its typhoon season, and has now cranked out its fifth major Category 3 or stronger typhoon of the month. Typhoon Lekima is an impressive Category 4 typhoon with 145 mph winds, intensifying over the warm waters of the Western Pacific about 1,500 miles southeast of Japan. Satellite loops show that Lekima is another very well-organized typhoon with a prominent eye surrounded by a solid ring of eyewall clouds with very cold cloud tops. Lekima is predicted to reach Category 5 strength on Thursday, but will likely recurve to the northeast without affecting any land areas.


Figure 4. MODIS satellite image of Typhoon Francisco (left) and Typhoon Lekima (right), taken at approximately 02 UTC on October 22, 2013. At the time, both typhoons had top winds near 85 mph. Image credit: NASA.

One year ago today: Tropical Depression Eighteen forms
One year ago today, here is what I wrote in my blog post, Tropical Depression 18 forms south of Jamaica: "Tropical Depression Eighteen is here, and appears poised to become Tropical Storm Sandy by early Tuesday morning. TD 18 is over very warm waters of 29.5°C, is in a moist environment, and has light wind shear of 5 - 10 knots. These conditions are very favorable for intensification, and TD 18's heavy thunderstorms are steadily organizing into curved spiral bands….It is unclear at this point whether or not the trough pulling TD 18 to the north will be strong enough to pull the storm all the way out to sea to the northeast; a very complicated steering environment will develop late this week, and it is possible that a narrow ridge of high pressure could build in over TD 18 and force the storm to the west-northwest, with a potential threat to the Northwestern Bahamas and U.S. East Coast by Saturday, as predicted by the ECMWF model."


Figure 5. Morning satellite image of Tropical Depression Eighteen on October 22, 2012.

Jeff Masters
Categories:Fire Hurricane