wild fire

As another heatwave hits the U.S. West this weekend, firefighters struggled to contain an exploding Northern California wildfire under blazing temperatures.

On Friday, Death Valley National Park in California recorded a staggering high of 130 degrees Fahrenheit (54 Celsius) and could reach the same high on Saturday. If verified, the 130-degree reading would be the hottest high recorded there since July 1913, when the same Furnace Creek desert area hit 134 F (57 C), considered the highest reliably measured temperature on Earth.

A wildfire in Northern California more than doubled in size from Friday to Saturday, sending up a massive cloud of smoke and ash that combined with the dry heat generated its own lightning and created dangerous weather conditions for firefighters, authorities said.

The Sugar fire, which ignited July 2, had spread to 54,421 acres and was 8% contained as of Saturday morning. The fire, now the state’s largest of the season so far, was one of two sparked by lightning in the Plumas National Forest that have together been dubbed the Beckwourth Complex Fire. The other, the Dotta fire, started June 30 and was 670 acres and 80% contained by early Saturday.

Fueled by a midweek heatwave that exacerbated already hot, dry conditions, the Sugar fire made a huge run Friday, triggering new evacuations for portions of Plumas and Lassen counties, as well as part of Washoe County, Nev. The Washoe County evacuations were lifted Saturday but residents were advised to stay vigilant. About 2,800 people remained under evacuation orders or warnings, officials said.

Firefighters were bracing for another day of extreme conditions amid even hotter temperatures.

Such intensity, combined with hot, dry, unstable conditions, can generate a thunderstorm cloud as the fire did Friday afternoon, when the incident meteorologist observed cloud-to-cloud lightning.

So-called pyrocumulonimbus clouds can, in turn, make the fire spread even faster — in addition to lightning, they can create erratic, ember-spitting winds.

Pyrocumulonimbus clouds — as well as pyrocumulus clouds, which are similar but do not produce thunderstorms — tend to rise up in the afternoon when it is hottest and can pose an additional danger when they fall as things cool off.

Later in the afternoon, that cloud will collapse and create a downdraft of heavy smoke, embers, things like that, and it can actually create additional fire behavior. The collapse can fling sparks miles ahead of the main fire. At the same time, the smoke also reduces visibility, grounding firefighting aircraft, she said.

The extreme fire behavior has made it hazardous for hand crews to fight the fire directly.

Fire incidents from around the state are competing for resources, and it is just hard to get all those qualified individuals to every incident to be fully staffed up.

Temperatures in the lower valleys in the vicinity of the fire were forecast to reach anywhere from 100 to 106 degrees, said Dawn Johnson, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Reno.

That was a result of a huge area of high pressure centered over California, Nevada and Arizona that was producing an effect similar to the heat dome over the Pacific Northwest that generated record-breaking temperatures last month, Johnson said.

The air is so dry, some of the water and retardant being dropped by aircraft on the Sugar fire has been evaporating before it hits the ground.

The fire was 70% contained at 490 acres Tuesday, four days after it started. By Wednesday morning, it had grown nearly fivefold, to 2,365 acres, and containment dropped to 28%.

Officials attributed the increase in fire activity to the heat that began intensifying midweek, which further baked drought-stressed vegetation and fostered the development of the giant smoke plume that helped the fire grow even more.

One rail line, or subdivision, was shut down after flames damaged a bridge. Water cars remained in the area spraying structures Saturday.

An AP report said:

The Beckwourth Complex showed no sign of slowing its rush northeast from the Sierra Nevada forest region after doubling in size between Friday and Saturday.

California’s northern mountain areas already have seen several large fires that have destroyed more than a dozen homes.

On Friday, hot rising air formed a gigantic, smoky pyrocumulus cloud that reached thousands of feet high and created its own lightning, fire information officer Lisa Cox said.

Spot fires caused by embers leapt up to a mile (1.6 kilometers) ahead of the northeastern flank — too far for firefighters to safely battle — and winds funneled the fire up draws and canyons full of dry fuel, where “it can actually pick up speed,” Cox said. The flames rose up to 100 feet (31 meters) in places, forcing firefighters to focus instead on building dozer lines to protect homes.

Firefighters usually take advantage of cooler, more humid nights to advance on a fire, Cox said, but the heat and low humidity never let up. The more than 1,200 firefighters were aided by aircraft. But the blaze was expected to continue forging ahead.

The California Independent System Operator warned of potential power shortage, not only because of mounting heat, but because a wildfire in southern Oregon was threatening transmission lines that carry imported power to California. Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an emergency proclamation on Friday suspending rules to allow for more power capacity, and the ISO requested emergency assistance from other states.

NV Energy, Nevada’s largest power provider, also urged customers to conserve electricity Saturday and Sunday evenings because of the heat wave and wildfires affecting transmission lines throughout the region.

In Southern California, a brush fire sparked by a burning big-rig in eastern San Diego County forced evacuations of two Native American reservations Saturday.

Washington

A wildfire in southeast Washington grew to 155 square kilometers as it blackened grass and timber while it moved into the Umatilla National Forest.

Idaho

In Idaho, Gov. Brad Little declared a wildfire emergency Friday and mobilized the state’s National Guard to help fight fires sparked after lightning storms swept across the drought-stricken region.

Fire crews in north-central Idaho were fighting three lightning-sparked wildfires covering a combined 160 square kilometers. The blazes threatened homes and forced evacuations in the tiny, remote community of Dixie 64 kilometers southeast of Grangeville.

Evacuation Hits Nevada Area

A California wildfire that closed nearly 200 square miles of forest forced evacuations across state lines into Nevada on Friday as winds and scorching, dry weather drove flames forward through trees and brush.

Homes Burned

In the region between the Oregon border and the northern end of the Central Valley, the big Lava and Tennant fires were significantly contained, and progress was reported at the Salt Fire as containment improved to 45%. The Salt Fire has burned 27 homes and 14 outbuildings north of Redding, which hit 100 degrees (37.7 Celsius) before 11 a.m. The Lava Fire destroyed 20 structures, including 13 homes, and damaged two structures. The Tennant Fire destroyed five buildings, including two homes.

Arizona

In north-central Arizona, increased humidity slowed a big wildfire that posed a threat to the rural community of Crown King. The 63.5-square-kilometer lightning-caused fire in Yavapai County was 29% contained.

Oregon

In Oregon, pushed by strong winds, a wildfire in Klamath County grew from 67 square kilometers Thursday to nearly 158 square kilometers on Friday in the Fremont-Winema National Forest and on private land. Klamath County Emergency Management on Friday issued an immediate evacuation order for people in certain areas north of Beatty and near Sprague River. California dispatched two strike teams engines to help.

The Oregon fire doubled in size to 311 square kilometers Saturday as it raced through heavy timber in the Fremont-Winema National Forest near the Klamath County town of Sprague River.

Climate change is considered a “key driver” of a trend that is creating “longer and more intense dry seasons that increase moisture stress on vegetation and make forests more susceptible to severe wildfire,” the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said recently.


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