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.

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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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113. NeverPanic
3:10 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
Again point well taken. Man from time immortal tho has woked to no ends to change the enviorment with little regard to conciquence.
This is not about GW....this is about our inability as a species, in many cases, to understand our surrounding and work to the best of our ability to maintain the status quo, God knows were supposed to be the smart ones. My main point is that we chose to alter the enviorment and then when things go wrong ....start pointing the finger. Instead of taking the responsibility.
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112. powerofH2
2:59 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
My discussion has absolutely nothing to do with GW, AnthroGW, etc. It's about anthropogenic intervention in a natural process. Some may argue an anglo intervention in processes that though weather/environmental, were helped along by the previous primary Homo s. inhabitants of this continent.

Just as the native Amer. used fire on the plains, the tribals of Africa use flame on the great savannahs of that continent. It has shaped the landscape for such a great length of time that the wildlife numbers and balances are shaped by that use of fire to alter the vegetation to increase the numbers of the desired game. Grasslands tends to increase the numbers of ungulates (hooved animals). Grasslands are also easier to hunt.

Well, in the western US, fire is primarily initiated by dry lightning, i.e. lightning strikes during virga showers. So this is an environment that could conceivably have evolved sans any anthro intervention.
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111. NeverPanic
2:42 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
Not tryin to get into the GW debate, but your point is well made. We have gone through the same debate in British Columbia fot he past umpteen years. Conclusion was not only to let nature take it's course, in some cases, but to to give it a little kick in others. Pine beetles and such have decimated the once green forests of this province and IMHO,let nature take it's course, Damn those that build in areas that are prone to natural disaster. Like building next to an airport or railway and then bi%%n about the noise.
End of rant.
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110. kmanislander
2:47 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
I'm out for tonight myself.

Just a footnote to say that I had two uncles go down on ships in storms. One was on a trawler in the North Sea and another was on a ship whose cargo shifted in a storm resulting in the loss of the vessel.

Caymanians have lost many to the sea and have learned to respect it as a consequence.

Good night all

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109. powerofH2
2:32 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
Even fire in a tropical forest can be beneficial. Depending on what type of tropical environment you are referring to. If we are speaking of a a savannah type environment, fire is absolutely necessary to maintain the savannah, otherwise you would have forest. In a tropical rainforest, yes of course fire would be quite damaging, but without the occasional drought allowing a fire, conditions become stagnant. Think of the tepuis of Venezuela and Guiana. These environs have changed very little for tens of thousands of years. Being near equatorial and geologically isolated for what is probably millions of years, receiving moisture from both latitute and altitude enduced rains, the creatures there are genetically isolated from many of their relatives at lower altitudes.

One can not immediately invisage a tropical rainforest when thinking of "tropics" as that term can be interpreted as either climatalogical lack of a subfreezing temperature every year (south Florida) or the region between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn.
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108. kmanislander
2:39 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
So long Pottery.

Next week has been forecasted by some on the blog to be the turning point in the season.
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107. kmanislander
2:36 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
I don't know too much about fires but certainly out in California people seem to have built in areas that burn every year. The great view from the hills and the privacy of being out in the natural environment surrounded by acres of your own land comes with a price
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106. pottery
10:37 PM AST on June 25, 2008
I'm out.
Sleep is a-callin'.
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105. pottery
10:20 PM AST on June 25, 2008
Point taken, Power.
There are indeed forests that are "designed" to burn, and left alone would burn on a pretty regular basis, without doing any real damage at all. In fact, fire will remove a build-up of flamable ( and in the case of pine, almost explosive) material from the forest floor.

Its hard on the beasties and such, but they will certainly learn, adapt, evolve and survive, as they did before we came along to help them. ( lol)

The same is not true for tropical forest though. There is no such thing as "dry" lightening in the tropics, as you probably know.
, and fire is a serious problem in forest environments in the tropics.
Not dissagreeing, just making a point.

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104. kmanislander
2:18 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
Many years ago the QE2 was making an Atlantic crossing and ran into a severe North Sea Gale. The waves tore off the deck rail and life boats on the bridge deck which is several stories above sea level.The passengers had to eat sandwiches for 3 days because the weather was too bad to use the stoves for cooking.

Reports from the Captain of the vessel said the wave was 30 meters high and struck at 2:30 a.m. !

The ocean is a harsh mistress at times.
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103. powerofH2
2:03 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
Good evening folks. The topic of Dr. Masters blog is actually one that I studied heavily in a masters level course during my masters studies. That is forests, fire, and the "misguided" fire suppression of the last century.

It is ridiculous to put out all these fires that are started naturally. It is ridiculous to even bother protecting the homes of the multimillionaires that throw up a pile of tinder in the middle of these areas that are rife with fuel, plant a bunch of weeds right up to the front door, and then cry foul to the insurance company when the firefighters aren't able to protect it. First of all, educate yourself just slightly. Keep the fuel way back from the house. Build with fireproof or at least highly resistant materials such as clay roof tiles and stucco or plaster exterior. Screen your vents with a fine mesh screen. If the fabulous view is that important, learn how to protect it.

Next rant, same topic.

The federal government knows its mistake. In this months National Geographic there was absolutely nothing new presented in an article regarding the Western Fires that I wasn't taught in the grad class. The problem is well documented. The Ponderosa Pine forests were once very scattered, mature trees, with lots of grass between. The Ponderosa is a fire adapted tree. When the fire is suppressed, the density of the trees increases, as well as the fuel on the ground. When you have ripe conditions, and everything goes up... EVERYTHING goes up, you get a "crown fire" that leaps from treetop to treetop and this kind of fire gets hot enough at ground level that the soil is sterilized. This isn't the gentle fire that just burns off the leaf litter and some of the small scrub bushes that run a full life cycle in a matter of 3 to 5 years. No we get slate wipers that kill everything including mature trees when you suppress fires for 30 years.

My message to the firefighters is to scream that old song from the early 90's to let the blankety blank burn! Let the fuel return its nutrients to the cycle and start the cycle again. Yes, there will be a short term increase in stream turbidity from the exposed soils. Yes there will be a great loss of wildlife that is unable to escape. However, this will all be replaced with greater speed than any of the so called environmentalists could ever imagine. There are plenty of seeds there that will sprout and replace what is lost.

end of rant - eager for responses to discuss
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102. pottery
10:09 PM AST on June 25, 2008
Good evening all. Kman is correct in his analysis of the ferry sinking IMO
Frankly, there are very few ships that will survive typhoon or hurricane conditions, with no engine power.
A cargo ship, or a tanker, both fully loaded and deep in the water would have a chance. But a passenger boat with shallow draft, no hope.
Very tragic.
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101. kmanislander
2:08 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
Ferries have a drive on deck that can be accessed either from the bow or stern or both. From the images I have seen of this vessel it looks as if vehicles were only capable of entering the vessel from the stern.

Some years ago a North Sea ferry sank coming out of Hollnd when the sea breached the bow doors but it would seem that this tragedy was ultimately the result of a vessel being overcome by the elements, then running aground, holing the hull.
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100. zoomiami
2:08 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
Thanks Kman - it's just a horrible thought to think of all those lives lost. It just proves that there isn't as much information out there for everyone as we believe there is.
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99. BajaALemt
2:04 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
Edmund Fitzgerald comes to mind
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98. kmanislander
2:04 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
I saw a picture of the upside down hull. Apart from the bow section this was a fairly flat bottom hull, not the hull of an ocean going vessel like the QE2 or Queen Mary that is more like a " deep v ". The ferry was plying between islands and was probably never designed for the punishment that the typhoon dished out
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97. zoomiami
2:04 AM GMT on June 26, 2008

Would this type of boat have the first deck basically open - ie where the cars come on?
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96. kmanislander
2:00 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
Big ships can easily turn turtle when they fill with water, have a shallow draft and there is a strong cross wind. This ship was dead in the water, without power which would also have incapacitated the thrusters. It would literally have been wallowing in hurricane force conditions and beam on seas that may have been 15 to 30 feet in height.

Once it started rolling it was only a matter of time.

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95. JLPR
1:59 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
aww come on guys lol there isn't activity in the Atlantic so we are giving the GFS a lot of attention =P When the season really gets going you will hear less of the models lol maybe spaghetti models =)

But models are useful just don't believe blindly in them =)
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94. Michfan
8:58 PM CDT on June 25, 2008
Models are nothing but a tool in conjunction with everything else. Anyone who takes them for more than that deserves to have their head bitten off IMO.
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93. zoomiami
1:57 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
Isn't it unusual for a ship that big to "turn turtle"? I know smaller boats can - normally from the movement of the water, when they get caught between troughs - can't remember any larger ones that have done this.
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92. SLU
1:52 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
84. StormW 1:20 AM GMT on June 26, 2008

Bertha 1996, formed July 5, after moving off Africa as a tropical wave in the 1st of July.

Excerpt from NOAA:

A tropical wave moved off the coast of Africa on July 1st. When located south of the Cape Verde Islands on the 3rd, a circulation was noted on satellite imagery. By the 5th, a tropical depression had formed in the central tropical Atlantic.

Bertha was an EXTREMELY RARE event.

I searched the entire hurricane database but I did not find another cyclone which formed east of 35W (which is around where Bertha developed @ 10n 34w) within the 1st 10 days of July. Only tropical storm Barry in 1989 which formed at 13n 38w on July 9th is the only one which comes anywhere close to Bertha.

Certainly development near the Cape Verde Islands in early July IS NOT favoured by climatology. :)
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91. kmanislander
1:55 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
I seem to recall that the GFS also predicted a storm to come up from the Southern Caribbean at the same time, but that never happened either.

If you want to look at long range models so be it. And yes, I do think they are a waste of time.

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90. kmanislander
1:46 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
I was reading reports on the ferry that capsised in the Phillipines. Some posters earlier were wondering what exactly happened and why.

It seems from reports that the ship lost power due to engine failure then was holed on rocks before going down very quickly. Why the engine (s) would fail is a mystery but I have a theory on how this may have unfolded.

Ferries are typically shallow draft vessels with a high cross section to the wind due to a multi deck superstructure. On the course the ferry was sailing it would have been subjected to a " beam on " port wind from the SE and then E and then NE as the typhoon approached from the East. The ferry was on a SSE course.

Being only 2 to 3 km offshore one of the many islands in the chain the captain would have had little sea room to head " into the wind ".

He may have been left to battle a 100 mph cross wind requiring max power at all times which could have resulted in engine failure. Once holed and without power that kind of wind across the beam would spell disaster.

Just my theory FWIW
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89. Michfan
8:43 PM CDT on June 25, 2008
The GFS correctly predicted Arthur and the activity that spawned it. I wouldn't exactly call the crystal gazing. When it is consistent from model run to model run it does have a tendency to be right most of the time. No reason those of us who do like to use the models have to discount them because someone else thinks they are rubbish.
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88. Skyepony
1:43 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
94E is leaving the floater. Can somebody move it?
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87. franck
1:35 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
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86. kmanislander
1:30 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
Good evening everyone

I see that once again as soon as the tropics quiet down someone whips out the long range GFS !

When will people learn that computer models beyond two or 3 days out are not much better than crystal gazing ?

If the tropics are quiet then wait and see what happens.Latching on to every computer run that spins something up two weeks away is a waste of time IMO.

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9:29 PM EDT on June 25, 2008
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83. GeoffreyWPB
9:12 PM EDT on June 25, 2008
Kinda off topic...(like I do when things are slow)..this is actually what Pres. Bush said to Phillipine President Arroyo today in the White House following the tragedy of Fengshen...

PRESIDENT BUSH: Madam President, it is a pleasure to welcome you back to the Oval Office. We have just had a very constructive dialogue. First, I want to tell you how proud I am to be the President of a nation that -- in which there's a lot of Philippine-Americans. They love America and they love their heritage. And I reminded the President that I am reminded of the great talent of the -- of our Philippine-Americans when I eat dinner at the White House.

PRESIDENT BUSH: And the chef is a great person and a really good cook, by the way, Madam President.
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81. SLU
12:59 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
74. stoormfury 12:44 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
hi SLU
you are so correct cocerning the gfs. it was the same model that consistently inialised the formation of dean last year. right now any survival of cyclone will have to south of 10deg n in the eatl. the gfs is forecasting the shear to relax in the MDR during the next ten days. we just have to wait and see

Yeah but i doubt we will see a cyclone off Africa in early July. If it does happen i'll be surprised
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80. InTheCone
8:59 PM EDT on June 25, 2008

Coming from you Storm, I will be on RED alert.

Thanks, I think.....

I sure hope my business doesn't take a hit this year, what with the energy prices we've already got, it would be disastrous!
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78. Patrap
7:53 PM CDT on June 25, 2008
If the MJO..comes across as the GFS is predicting,and the NAM goes Bonkers as the TCHP rises and we all go BAMM over the TWO.

Well,you get the picture.

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77. justcurious
12:53 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
Thanks for the welcomes. :) I haven't been on here too much. Any "gut" predictions for the coming season? Active or not? Lots of curving away or not (or straight west, like last year?)
I know the last two years I have done a lot of "cheers" to the sheer! Any such luck this year as residents of the sw florida coast?

Happy Trails
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76. GeoffreyWPB
8:48 PM EDT on June 25, 2008
I respect everyone's opinion...but the facts are the facts
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75. InTheCone
8:45 PM EDT on June 25, 2008
Tough Crowd, Tough Crowd....Don't get no respect.....

Gotta luv' 'em... or not.

They are Not for the feint of heart, but I like 'em!!!!

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74. stoormfury
12:36 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
hi SLU
you are so correct cocerning the gfs. it was the same model that consistently inialised the formation of dean last year. right now any survival of cyclone will have to south of 10deg n in the eatl. the gfs is forecasting the shear to relax in the MDR during the next ten days. we just have to wait and see
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73. GeoffreyWPB
8:41 PM EDT on June 25, 2008
72. weathers4me 8:37 PM EDT on June 25, 2008
Will make my prediction again, like last year I was dead on. Hurricane of great strentth in the atl/carib. July 25.

Dean formed on Agust 13...Trop. Strom Erin Aug. 14 and Felix August 31.
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72. weathers4me
12:33 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
Will make my prediction again, like last year I was dead on. Hurricane of great strentth in the atl/carib. July 25.
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71. presslord
12:25 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
my mom was a middle school teacher and's a special breed of teacher...such a difficult age....
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70. ShenValleyFlyFish
12:22 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
68. presslord
Not necessarily an either or proposition.
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69. aspectre
12:02 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
Hurricane Audrey
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68. presslord
12:12 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
anybody who deals with middle schoolers on a daily basis is either a deeply dedicated caring person devoted to out nations future...or a psychotic masochist...
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67. zoomiami
12:09 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
Hi Justcurious. I don't have the knowledge level that others on here do, but I enjoy learning, and watching with others when the weather threatens.
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66. zoomiami
12:06 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
Interesting facts - my grandparents lived in Rhode Island during that time, and my husband was born in 57 in Lake Charles. Must have been an exciting time for my Mother-in-law. I never heard my grandparents talk about the storm though.
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65. justcurious
12:07 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
It's that time again. School is out (I am a teacher). All the summer tasks are done, it's time to relax... and watch the weather blog! I have been lurking and sometimes joining in here for a few years... at least since 2005 and maybe since 2004. I live in South West Florida. I feel like I know many of you. I don't have much knowledge to share, compared with many of you. I am a middle school science teacher with a life long love of all things weather related.

Happy Trails!!

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64. zoomiami
12:05 AM GMT on June 26, 2008
I'll try again - this is a nice story written last year about those who survived Hurricane Aubrey.

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