Deadly wildfires still raging in California: why they’re getting larger and so hard to fight

Firefighters battle the Woolsey Fire in Malibu, California on November 11, 2018. (Photo: REUTERS/Eric Thayer)

Wildfires have been burning in parts of California for a week. Two of them spread very quickly and continue to rage – the Camp Fire, which burned down the town of Paradise in the northern part of the state, and the Woolsey Fire in the southern part near Los Angeles. The fact that they developed so late in the year may have caught a lot of people off guard.

Here’s the latest on the fires as of this morning, November 15, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire):

Camp Fire

  • Location: Butte County

  • 140,000 acres burned

  • 40 percent contained

  • 56 fatalities confirmed

  • 10,321 structures destroyed (including homes)

Woolsey Fire

  • Location: Los Angeles County, Ventura County

  • 98,362 acres burned

  • 57 percent contained

  • 3 fatalities confirmed

  • 435 structures destroyed, 57,000 in danger

There’s a map of the fires in this report.

These two fires struck in November which is typically a cooling off period for California’s wildfire season. By now, the state should be receiving some seasonal rains, but they haven’t come. A hot, dry summer stretching into fall has left the land parched and primed for fires.

However, for a while, fields of vegetation flourished due to periods of frequent rain that swept through California in late 2017 into early 2018. But since February, most of California has been in a drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. When a wet start to the year is followed by a drought, it creates perfect conditions for wildfires. The vegetation explodes in wet months, only to become fuel during the subsequent drought. This see-saw of wet and dry is part of why California has experienced fast-growing fires the past two years.

California’s famous hillsides and canyons also help fires grow and make it difficult for firefighters to put them out. Canyons become like furnaces, heating the rock walls, and when terrain is rugged, it’s not safe to put ground crews directly on it. When fires burn through rocky, hard-to-reach places, crews will try to fight fires from the sky. Fire retardant will be dropped from planes, and firefighters called smokejumpers parachute down to the fire sites. Whether they arrive by plane or by truck, firefighters will ultimately struggle to make progress on foot.

Santa Ana winds also make it hard to fight these California fires. The fires typically move uphill because flames grow upward, but strong winds can redirect fires into valleys and across plains. These winds heat up the dry, drought-stricken land, making it more likely to combust. The more intense the fire, the more heat, energy, and chemicals it emits. Trees and homes can start burning before flames even reach a particular neighborhood. This is called flashover. Also, embers can travel about a mile in strong winds.

Last week the Santa Ana winds spread the Camp Fire so fast that it burned down an entire town, and the Woolsey Fire spread from 8,000 acres to 35,000 acres in less than a day. This delayed crews in fighting the fires because they had to assist in evacuations first.

According to this report, wildfires across the U.S. have been getting bigger over the years, but haven’t been increasing in numbers. So far this year, wildfires have burned around 3.5 million acres of land, roughly the size of Connecticut. What specifically sparked the California fires hasn’t been determined, but some experts say the trend of fires becoming larger is a combination of climate change, short-term weather patterns, and a philosophical shift in how we manage both forests and fires.

The National Fire Laboratory and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have been working with the U.S. Forest Service to make neighborhoods near wildland areas more defensible against wildfires. These wildland-urban interfaces refer to places, such as Paradise, California, where human communities bump into unoccupied, untamed land. Housing development in such areas has boomed in the United States, growing from 31 million houses to 43 million houses from 1990 to 2010, an increase of 41 percent.

Part of the project is to engage entire communities to reduce the amount of fuel vegetation around all homes that are adjacent to wildland areas. According to this report, it worked for the town of Montecito during last year’s Thomas Fire in California, and officials hope it can make a difference for other communities in the future.

Show More

Nick Austin, Director of Weather Analytics and Senior Meteorologist

In his 17 years of weather forecasting experience, Nick worked on air at WBBJ-TV and WRCB-TV, including time spent doing weather analysis and field reporting. He received his Bachelor of Science in Meteorology from Florida State University as well as a Bachelor of Science in Management from Georgia Institute of Technology. Nick is also a member of the American Meteorological Society and National Weather Association. As a member of the weather team at WBBJ-TV in Jackson, Tennessee, Nick was nominated for a Mid-South Emmy for live coverage of a major tornado outbreak in 2008. As part of the weather team at WRCB-TV in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Nick shared the Chattanooga Times-Free Press Best of the Best award for “Best Weather Team” for eight consecutive years. Nick earned his National Weather Association Broadcasting Seal in 2005.