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California Wildfire Update

By: Christopher C. Burt, 8:31 PM GMT on September 23, 2014

California Wildfire Update

The King Fire, east of Sacramento in California, has now charred 90,000 acres and burned at least 32 structures including 10 homes. It is now 35% contained thanks to a cool, moist weekend. However, the next two days will be critical in its containment since weather conditions have changed back to windy and warm.

A wildfire burns along the shores of Bass Lake in the central Sierra Mountains on September 14th. This was one of several wildfires that have burned across the central Sierra region so far this month. Photo by Darwin Atkeson/AP.

This Tuesday and Wednesday (September 23-24) will be the make it or break it point so far as containing the 90,000-acre King Fire that is threatening 12,000 homes in El Dorado and Placer Counties (about 50 miles east of Sacramento). As of Tuesday, September 23rd, 2,800 people have been ordered to evacuate their homes.

Map of active wildfires in northern and central California as of Tuesday, September 23rd. The round icons represent new wildfires (that have begun in the past week) and the square icons currently active fires that began more than a week ago. The red shaded area is currently under Red Flag warnings. The King Fire is burning in the area indicated in bright red between Reno and Sacramento. Map from Esri Disaster Response Program.

It is already the 2nd largest wildfire of the season (following the 131,996 Happy Camp Complex fire on the Oregon-California border) and has a chance of making it into the ‘top 20’ list of largest wildfires in California history.

The top 20 largest wildfires in California history as of the end of the fire season last October, 2013. The Happy Camp Complex fire has now burned 131,996 acres in far northern California and thus earned its spot as #16 on the list above. It is now 75% under control. Note how 11 of the top 20 largest fires (including the Happy Camp Complex fire) have occurred since the year 2000. Table from Cal Fire, Cal.gov

If the 7,000+ firefighters working on the King blaze can keep it contained through Thursday they may get a break since rainfall is forecast to move into the region later this week.

Forecast QPF rainfall amounts for California through Thursday morning September 25th. The rain, hopefully, will reach the area of the King Fire by Friday. In any case, the rain will almost certainly help suppress the remaining wildfires that are currently burning in the far northern portion of the state, such as the Happy Camp Complex event. Map from NWS-Monterrey.

In spite of this years many calamitous wildfires the amount of acreage so far burned in California has been only slightly above average and, for the U.S. as a whole, only about 50% of normal (using the past 10-year running average) to date.

Total number of fires and acreage burned in the continental U.S. for the year-to-date. It has been a catastrophic fire year so far for California and the Pacific Northwest but much better than usual for the Southwest and Rocky Mountain regions. Table from National Interagency Fire Center, Boise, Idaho.

Nevertheless, the month of October has seen many of the worst wildfire events in California history. It is near the end of the dry season and traditionally the strongest Santa Ana and Diablo wind events (offshore flow) occur. This was the case during the state’s largest and deadliest wild fires on record: the Cedar Fire in October 2003, (see table of ‘Top 20’ above) and the Oakland/Berkeley Hills fire of October 1991 which was the costliest and deadliest wild fire in modern U.S. history. Although only 1,200 acres burned, 3,000 homes were destroyed, 25 lives lost, and over $1 billion in damage was caused.

The largest wildfire in California history occurred in southern California in October 2003. Some 273,000 acres burned consuming 2,800 structures and killing 15. The Oakland Hills fire of October 1991 was even worse (though much smaller) when 3000 homes were destroyed and 25 people were killed. NASA image.

Christopher C. Burt
Weather Historian

Extreme Weather Fire

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