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California fires could reach record levels in 2008

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 9:42 PM GMT on June 25, 2008

An unusually early and dangerous fire season has hit California, where at least 33 fires burning over a total of 190,000 acres are active, according to the Interagency Fire Center. The fires were sparked over the weekend when an unusually far southward-moving storm system brought numerous thunderstorms to central and northern California. Over 8,000 lightning strikes hit the region. Most of these strikes were not accompanied by rain, since a very dry atmosphere at low levels caused much of the thunderstorm rain to evaporate before reaching the surface. The lightning strikes ignited an unusual number of fires, due to exceptionally dry vegetation in California. This year, the state experienced its driest spring season (March-April-May) since record keeping began in 1895, and much of the state is in moderate to severe drought.

Figure 1. Visible satellite image from NASA's Aqua spacecraft on Monday, June 23, 2008, showing smoke from hundreds of wildfires sparked by lightning in California. The red regions show where the satellite's sensor detected fires burning. The smoke has created air pollution levels in excess of the federal standards for fine particulate matter (PM2.5) over much of California's Central Valley. Image credit: NASA.

The forecast
With the dry season only beginning, it could be a record fire year in California. Even before last weekend's lightning storms, California had already seen an unusually large number of destructive wildfires, according to CalFire--90,000 acres had burned, compared to 42,000 acres during the same period last year. It is not unusual for large portions of the state to receive no rain at all in July and August, such as occurred last year (Figure 2). The jet stream typically moves far enough north in summer that the migrating low pressure systems that bring California most of its rain only hit the northernmost portions of the state. With high fuel levels due to a century of misguided fire suppression efforts, moderate to severe drought gripping the state, no rain in sight for months to come, and an above-normal chance of warmer than average temperatures forecast this summer for the state by NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, expect a record fire season in California.

Figure 2. Observed precipitation over California during 2007. Much of the state received no rain at all during July and August, which is a common occurrence. A little bit of thunderstorm activity did make it into the easternmost portion of the state, thanks to moisture flowing north-westward from the Arizona Monsoon. However, the Sierra Mountains block this moisture from reaching the central and western portions of the state. Image credit: NOAA.

It's quiet in the tropical Atlantic. There are no threat areas to discuss, and none of the models are forecasting tropical storm formation in the next seven days. Beyond a week from now, the GFS is hinting that the region off the coast of Africa could see some development, but it is still probably too early for this too occur, despite warmer than average sea surface temperatures in the region.

Jeff Masters

San Bruno Mountain Fire - Cresting the Ridge (ajkimoto)
Photo taken as the fire crested the ridge of San Bruno Mountain
San Bruno Mountain Fire - Cresting the Ridge

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

Reader Comments

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164. TerraNova
11:38 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
Morning everyone.

Just to clarify something (after seeing the ECMWF and GFS forecasts), the reason the Eastern Atlantic/Eastern MDR is refered to as being climatologicaly unfavorable for development is because sea surface temperatures there do not normally warm up enough to support significant development until late July/August, and the wave train does not normally amplify until late July. Well, regardless of climatology, the Eastern Atlantic just to the north of 8N is favorable for development. And, SST's are unusually high in the region surrounding Cape Verde. Also, we've had very powerful waves coming off the African shore, one that's already been named an invest but slammed into dry land before it could develop further. The others have succumed to dry air, but take a look at current WV satellite imagery. A precursor wave like that would probably provide an ample moisture shield for any waves behind it, especially with the upward MJO pulse arriving from the west. The Cape Verde region is favorable for development at this time, regardless of what climatology may say. However, anything that develops in this region will probably encounter problems with wind shear to the west, where it is unfavorable for development.

God I hope I'm not sounding like a wishcaster :p
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162. IKE
6:53 AM CDT on June 26, 2008
160. StormW 6:51 AM CDT on June 26, 2008
Back at ya IKE!

How ya doin'?

Doing fine...looks like you'll have a ramp up in activity to keep track of.....soon.
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161. ShenValleyFlyFish
7:16 AM EDT on June 26, 2008
148. jphurricane2006
Sprint and nTelos just came out with a "portable broadband" set up which I have been using for about a month. You get a little gizmo that plugs into one of your usb ports which connects you to their cell phone towers only bout 10X faster than if you were going through your cell phone. It has the same hassles as cellphone: occasional drops, distance from tower issues, varying speeds due to traffic level, but for someone who can't access anything except dial-up speeds it is a huge leap ahead. I expect that other providers will initiate something similar in the near future. I'm loving it. Its like having your own personal roving hot-spot. I have been bringing my notebook computer to work and accessing the net at coffee break and lunchtime.
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159. IKE
6:47 AM CDT on June 26, 2008
Winds are 15-20 mph out in the middle GOM(east-SE direction)...bath water warm........
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158. IKE
6:47 AM CDT on June 26, 2008
Good morning StormW.........
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156. IKE
6:43 AM CDT on June 26, 2008
Looks like 94E in the east-PAC might be upgraded(from looking at satellite)...a fish-storm.
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155. MahFL
11:01 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
I never change my underwear !!!!! he he he.....
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153. IKE
6:28 AM CDT on June 26, 2008

the 4th of July weekend.
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152. IKE
6:26 AM CDT on June 26, 2008
00Z ECMWF shows a system forming in the extreme southern Caribbean crossing Nicaragua/Guatemala and the Yucatan....

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151. crownwx
7:22 AM EDT on June 26, 2008
jphurricane: That's really a shame and too bad
that your job is cracking down on internet
useage. Another company that fails to embrace
the greatness of the internet and sees it as
evil. Grrrr!!!

Anyways, have you thought of getting a I-Phone
for the internet, so that you can still see
radar data at work??
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150. IKE
6:21 AM CDT on June 26, 2008
Area forecast discussion
National Weather Service Mobile Alabama
408 am CDT Thursday Jun 26 2008

Short term (today and tonight)...upper air analysis shows a break
in the middle to high level ridge over the lower Mississippi River
valley and Gulf Coast. Within this weakness/shear
axis...forecasters note a good degree of deep layer moisture (from
1.7 to near 2 inch precipitable waters) as low level/surface ridge
off the southeast coast imparts south to southwest flow off the
Gulf. Considering these players along with destabilization of the
local airmass during the day today...the stage appears set for
thunderstorms to initiate on weak mesoscale boundaries/sea breeze
through the course of the day. Forecasters anticipate isolated
thunderstorms to form up along the coastal zones this morning with
an increase in coverage northward. The environment is supportive of
waterspouts as well and if your heading to the beaches this
morning...be on the lookout for these. Waterspouts should show a
dissipating trend before approaching shore.

Another item...offering up quite a challenge on the forecast plate
is temperatures...mainly in the daytime highs. With the weaker
heights aloft and deeper layer moisture...have opted to stay very
close to the mav MOS numbers for the official numbers. We did edge
slightly above the guidance in the northeast zones today...where
just may be enough upper ridging to aid in compressional warming as
sun breaks through clouds before thunderstorms bring temperatures
down. That is the challenge. Thunderstorms could be strong with a
few possibly strengthening...briefly to severe levels. Outside of
locally heavy rains and frequent lightning...storms will be capable
of producing brief strong winds and small hail. With the wet bulb
zero heights from 12.5 to 13 kft...storms that develop high
reflectivity (55+ dbz at 26+ kft) could produce penny sized hail as
well as brief damaging winds...upon core collapse in these storms.
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
149. melwerle
11:11 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
oh and on a note regarding California fires...

We had a home in chula Vista, CA when the huge San Diego fires happened in October about 4 years back. The fires in the northern part of San Diego were terrible - started by a lost hunter who started a bon fire (in the santa anas) hoping to have someone spot him in the mountains. Someone apparently set a few more fires in the different regions and all hell broke loose. There was a fire in the mountains not far from our home...and I watched it all day, not thinking that anything would happen to us since our home was in a HUGE neighborhood several miles from the fires and our yard and all our neighbors yards were well kept, no brush etc. I watched that fire all day and most of the night as it kept coming closer and closer. (Kept saying "when it gets to this line, we leave." It would get to that line and then we'd keep moving the lines..."when it gets to THIS line, we'll leave.) Eventually the police came through and told us to evacuate - it was a "suggestion" because they didn't know if they would be able to make it back into our area to give us a mandatory evac. We stayed and kept watch all night...

Our area had nothing to do with brush or people not cutting back their areas. And the ash that would fly would set bushes in your yard on fire (October is SERIOUSLY dry.) All our halloween decorations had to come down since they were fire hazards. It's a really humbling experience - very frightening. The ash though - the flying embers - you really can't do too much besides make sure you don't have a shake-shingle roof and sit and water your house with the hose. Our house was fine but school was cancelled for the rest of the week, businesses were closed...was a terrible scene - air quality was miserable and most people that you would speak to knew of someone who had lost their home.

I will give alot of credit to the local government though - they had Qualcomm stadium as a shelter open...brought in entertainment for people, amusements for the kids, plenty of food, water, sunblock - whatever people needed. They were having to turn locals away bringing blankets, food etc because there was SO MUCH of it.

ok - rambling...
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147. beell
11:10 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
jp, try looking at the last 2-3 GFS runs at 700mb. I'm talking waves, not storms.

No signpost to you then. Good enuf!
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145. IKE
6:10 AM CDT on June 26, 2008
142. CybrTeddy 6:09 AM CDT on June 26, 2008
Ike, whats your opinion on the Blob in the gulf?

Odds are it won't develop tropically...but copious amounts of rain and thunderstorms heading north out of the GOM.
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144. melwerle
11:09 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
Good morning everyone...

just looked at some of the pics from noaa..what's that stuff off of sw florida? Just moisture or something to worry about?

Sailing in Jax this weekend and I don't want to bother going if it's going to be yucky this weekend. Not fond of sailing in tstorms...
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143. IKE
6:09 AM CDT on June 26, 2008
From Tallahassee,FL....

"Short term...
(today through saturday) the 00 UTC GFS/NAM and 12 UTC Wednesday
European model (ecmwf) all forecast abundant deep layer moisture over our area...as
we remain under southwest flow aloft between the aforementioned
trough over the western Gulf and the western extent of the Bermuda
high to our south and east. With favorable thermodynamics and
onshore winds in the 1000-700 mb layer...we expect scattered to
numerous showers and thunderstorms each afternoon and evening. The
best chance for rain appears to be Friday afternoon...when the
thermodynamics appear most favorable. The NAM continues to forecast
surface cyclogenesis over the southeast Gulf beginning
tonight...then takes the low ashore around Destin Florida Friday night.
For the first time the GFS shows some cyclogenesis as well...but
much weaker than the NAM. The 21 UTC Wednesday sref ensemble mean
and 12 UTC European model (ecmwf) Wednesday European model (ecmwf) do not support these solutions. For
this forecast package we continued to not use the NAM...and favored
a blend of the GFS and sref. As is usually the case this time of
year...a few storms could be briefly strong to severe with
marginally severe hail and/or wet microbursts."
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142. CybrTeddy
11:07 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
Ike, whats your opinion on the Blob in the gulf?
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140. IKE
6:03 AM CDT on June 26, 2008
From the 8:05 am EDST Atlantic tropical weather discussion...

"Gulf of Mexico...
a shortwave trough continues to lie over the Gulf stretching
from the Mississippi River Delta area in Louisiana to the Bay of
Campeche and The Isthmus of Tehuantepec. An upper level ridge
extends from the NW Caribbean over the remainder of the Gulf
region into the W Atlc to over South Florida and the NW Bahamas.
Swly upper flow between these two upper level features is
supplying the E Gulf and Florida with an abundance of tropical
moisture. These diffluent upper winds are enhancing convection
over the Yucatan Peninsula and sern Gulf waters. Lightning data
indicates scattered showers and tstms across the Yucatan
Peninsula extending northeastward across the sern Gulf E of 91w
and S of 27n. A weak surface ridge extends from the W Atlc over
nrn Florida and the nrn Gulf with a 1024 mb high centered near
32n69w. Under this pattern...E to se winds of 10-15 kt are
observed across the Gulf with a narrow band of 15-20 kt over The
Straits of Florida and the se portion of the Gulf. The surface
ridge is forecast to remain in place through the weekend."
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139. beell
10:59 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
JP, the twaves modeled by the GFS are moving NW towards cooler SST's. (edit-changed NE to NW-duh)

The point I threw out there was the appearance of strong waves leaving Africa N of 10N.

Agree/Disagree on that point only if you will.
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137. sporteguy03
10:55 AM GMT on June 26, 2008

6z GFS at it again Ike good Morning.
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136. beell
10:40 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
Regarding the value of long range GFS runs:

The noteworthy item is the persistent development of several fairly strong t-waves at 700mb leaving the African coast at a higher latitude then all the other early waves we have seen so far. Also showing some northward creep of the ITCZ.

This is normal and denotes a change in the pattern. Cooler SST's, SAL, shear, and the east to west strength of the subtropical ridge are still factors that should or could limit development. It is possibly a signpost of the season.

In that respect, the persistence of the GFS model runs and the strength of the waves depicted are certainly worth notice. I don't think too many folks are forecasting 3 CAT 5 EATL hurricanes yet.

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134. stoormfury
10:42 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
invest??? i don't know . i have to see some more sat pics of the area. although MSLP is dropping slightly, wind shear is still high in the area
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133. crownwx
6:40 AM EDT on June 26, 2008
The tropical Atlantic continues to be relatively quiet and is expected to stay this way straight through this weekend with no tropical cyclones expected to form through this weekend. However, there are signs now showing up that the "switch" may be turned on next week, especially in the eastern Atlantic as the African wave train may begin earlier than normal this year. The GFS model in particular continues to forecast the development of a low pressure system off of the coast of Africa on Tuesday or Wednesday and then forecasts it to track west to west-northwestward through the eastern Atlantic during the middle to later part of next week. After that, the GFS model forecasts at least one more low pressure system to form off of the African coast during the fourth of July weekend and forecasts quite a bit of activity in the way of tropical waves and tropical disturbances in the eastern Atlantic over at least the next 10 to 14 days.

Now let's take a look at whether there is model support for the tropical low pressure system that is forecast to form next week and whether the GFS model forecast is actually plausible. At this point, only the European model supports this development as the Euro models forecasts the development of a low pressure system near the coast of Africa during the mid to late part of next week.

My feeling on this is that it is the GFS model forecast is a plausible scenario as the tropical disturbances have been quite strong as they come off of Africa. It has been this way for the past few weeks. Also, the sea surface temperatures near the coast of Africa have been warmer than normal this year. So, at this point, there is really nothing else to do or say except to watch the various model output and the real-time weather patterns and compare them over the coming days. I will particularly be watching for model consistency and model support to see if this scenario continues to be forecast.

In conclusion, tropical cyclone development is not expected through Sunday. Then, we may have to really turn our eyes eastward towards the eastern Atlantic and off of the African coast next week for the possibility of tropical cyclone development.
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132. weathermanwatson
10:40 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
An invest in the gulf????
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131. stoormfury
10:13 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
Is this a form of a weak circulation near 24n 93w check it out

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130. CybrTeddy
9:36 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
Really big blowups now in the GOM
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129. CybrTeddy
9:35 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
Levi, this isnt just from an ULL, its from an interacting tropical wave, the one we was watching
last week. This is how Arlene was formed i think.
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126. NorthxCakalaky
8:46 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
I think we could see something to watch in the Atlantic within 10-20days...
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124. presslord
2:59 AM EDT on June 26, 2008
Anybody awake out there in hurricaneland?
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123. Levi32
6:19 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
The NAM is crazy.....nothing can form on the eastern side of that ULL in the gulf. The upper-air environment is not even close to conducive right now. Those thunderstorms near the Yucatan are just a normal result of upper divergence on the SE side of the ULL.
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122. CybrTeddy
6:18 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
Everyone, check off the Yucatan, I think that may be what the NAM was predicting, it a Big blob of rain and what not.
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121. stormygace
6:12 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
JLPR - that's cool - I have never seen the Curr gen Prob maps with any colours above the leaf green. Wow!
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120. JLPR
5:36 AM GMT on June 26, 2008

We pretty much have TD2 E
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119. HurakanPR
12:06 AM AST on June 26, 2008
Is kind of funny how far the so called anti-emvironmentalist go to try to proof their points. If you don't like Dr. Marters scientific points of view, see what you can do about it. Im pretty sure he will continue to provide the public with the proper scientific information, despite the little political issues that some try to hide behind anthropological arguments.
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118. JLPR
4:10 AM GMT on June 26, 2008

Google earth view of the wave that should be on the coast of Africa and the one inside =)
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117. HurricaneKing
12:01 AM EDT on June 26, 2008
Look at the little spin south of Orlando.

Back to watching AVP Requiem.
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116. TampaSpin
11:53 PM EDT on June 25, 2008
Way to much Shear for anything to develop now.......It will probably be at least 7 days before some of this shear relaxes.
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115. CaneAddict
3:37 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
Good night all! I have been lurking mainly, Have not been posting much buti feel confident in saying that sometime tomorrow we will have Tropical Depression 2E in the East Pacific, 94E is organizing very nicely and banding features are becoming apparent as the circulation continues to tighten and close-off.
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114. powerofH2
3:20 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
I'm off to bed, I'm pretty good about reading backlog before starting to respond or jump in discussions. Sweet Dreams all.
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Cat 6 lead authors: WU cofounder Dr. Jeff Masters (right), who flew w/NOAA Hurricane Hunters 1986-1990, & WU meteorologist Bob Henson, @bhensonweather

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