Wildfires Rage Near Parched Santiago, Chile

By Dan DePodwin, Meteorologist
January 11, 2014; 3:30 AM
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Dozens of wildfires raged across central Chile through the first week of January, sending plumes of dark, sooty smoke across Santiago, the capital of the South American country.

As of early Thursday, more than 100,000 acres of the region had been affected by the fires according the Associated Press. Chilean forestry experts expect more than $100 million in damage, according to a NASA report.

With no rainfall since Sept. 21, 2013, and only 20 mm (0.80 of an inch) of rain since July 2013, Santiago has been stuck in a substantial drought. In fact, the city has only received 36% of their normal rain over the last four years.

This prolonged spell of dry conditions has made conditions ripe for wildfires. With little moisture and parched vegetation, just a small spark is enough to start a fire. A fresh breeze and low humidity across the area provided favorable conditions for the spread of the fires.

A group of people relax on a park bench at Cerro San Cristobal Park overlooking the Chilean capital which is shrouded by a cloud of smoke from dozens of forest fires that burn near Santiago, Chile, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014. (AP Photo / Luis Hidalgo).

Although the region is in the midst of their typical dry season, the last several months have been unusually dry with only 3 mm (0.11 of an inch) since the beginning of September. Unfortunately, no drought relief is in sight for Santiago.

The long-term dry spell may partially be explained by the lack of any sustained, strong El Nino events in the past several years. The El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is the fluctuation in sea-surface temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean.

RELATED:
Detailed Santiago Forecast
Chile Weather Center
Five Surprising Facts About Wildfires

AccuWeather.com International Weather Expert Dale Mohler explained, "El Nino events, with warmer-than-normal water in the eastern Pacific, tend to promote a wetter weather pattern for Chile. With a trend toward La Nina (cooler than normal water) recently, rainfall has been suppressed."

Satellite image showing large plumes of smoke across central Chile due to wildfires. NASA image courtesy of Jeff Scmaltz, LANCE/EOSDIS MODIS Rapid Response Team, GSFC.

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