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Heart of Already Busy California Wildfire Season is Yet to Come

By By Kristina Pydynowski, senior meteorologist
August 11, 2015, 12:19:55 AM EDT

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This year has already been unusually active for wildfires across California, and the heart of the season is yet to come.

Firefighters in California have joined other crews throughout the United States in dealing with a very busy wildfire season so far this year.

The National Interagency Fire Center reports that the total of wildfire acres burned in the United States through Aug. 7 is the most since 2011. A total of 6,058,694 acres have been charred, which is about triple the total during the same time span in 2014.

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As of Aug. 7, there were 48 large wildfires burning across the nation with the majority (14) found in California. The fires alone in California have consumed more than 169,000 acres.

Two U.S. Forest Service firefighters have died battling California wildfires since July 30.

David “Dave” Ruhl of Rapid City, South Dakota, died July 30 as he was working at the Frog Fire, northwest of Adin, California. Michael Hallenbeck died Aug. 8 after he was injured by a falling tree during the Sierra Fire on the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit in Northern California, the U.S. Forest Service said.

Not all of the blazes across California are handled by the CAL FIRE agency, but 4,201 fires that have been through Aug. 1 charred 100,000 acres. That is more than double the five-year average and tops 2014’s total of 87,676 acres for the same period.

“Four years of extreme drought has primed California to have the right conditions for a serious fire season,” AccuWeather Western Expert Meteorologist Ken Clark said.

“With the unprecedented drought and the heart of the fire season still to come, the conditions remain very dangerous for more large and destructive fires into October,” Clark said.

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Western Weather Blog by Ken Clark

After monsoon moisture threatens to touch off new blazes, the wildfire season threatens to ramp up further into early fall with the onset of Santa Ana winds.

Monsoon moisture will continue to pour into the western United States through September, helping to fuel showers and thunderstorms. As is typical, the moisture will be directed toward the Four Corners region on most days but could get drawn into California on a few occasions.


One such occasion may briefly take place during the middle of this coming week, touching off spotty afternoon thunderstorms in the deserts of Southern California. Later in the week, AccuWeather meteorologists will be monitoring the potential for a storm system to clip northwestern California with dry thunderstorms.

“Dry lightning is always a danger in the fire season to start fires,” Clark said. “Several surges of monsoon moisture has caused some of the fires in northern California.”

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If the monsoon moisture is not rich enough, thunderstorms that erupt will struggle to produce rainfall, but not lightning. When enough moisture is present, the downpours that result could trigger flash flooding and mudslides. However, lightning could still extend well away from the parent thunderstorm and its heavy rain to ignite a wildfire.

The thunderstorms that will dot Southern California at midweek would bring a mix of localized downpours and lightning strikes, but the thunderstorms should be spotty in nature.

Santa Ana winds ramp up in the fall as the jet stream drops southward. Areas of high pressure will then be able to build into the Great Basin and set the stage for the winds to howl through the mountains and valleys of Southern California.

Any new or existing wildfires will easily get rapidly spread by the Santa Ana winds.

Wildfire season will gradually come to an end as fall transitions to winter and the storm track sets up across California, leading to much-needed rainfall. However, the rain this winter will be a double-edged sword.

“With a strong El Nino expected, there is a better than normal chance the coming winter will be a wet one,” Clark said. “This is good news in general, but with all the fires that have already occurred and more to come, we could be setting the stage for a high risk of major flooding and mudslides around burn areas.”

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