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Camp Fire: The Terrifying Science Behind California's Massive Blaze



Editor's note: This is a developing story about California's Fire Camp, Hill Fire, and Woolsey Fire. We will update it as more information becomes available.

At 6:30 am Thursday morning, a wildfire of astounding proportions and speed broke out in Northern California. Dubbed the Camp Fire, it covered 11 miles in its first 11 hours of life. A mile an hour might not be almost in human terms, but it's at an extreme rate of speed as far as fires are concerned. At one point it was burning 80 acres a minute .

"It seems that the town is being wiped out or severely damaged," says Stephen Pyne, a wildfire expert at Arizona State University.

"We're seeing urban conflagrations, and that's the real phase change in recent years."

It used to be exterminated or scattered enclaves.

The Camp Fire horrorshow, which has burned so far 20,000 acres, is a confluence of factors. The first is wind-lots of it, blasting in from the east. "We have a weather event, in this case a downslope windstorm, where as opposed to the normal westerly winds, we get easterly winds that are cascading off the crest of the Sierra Nevada," says Neil Lareau, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Nevada, Reno.

A windstorm barreling from the east just set the stage for this week's burning disaster. It's a normal phenomenon that comes from the jetstream, which is the time of year grows stronger. North and South "meanders" in the jetstream, known as troughs and ridges, get amplified. These cold airs travel through the Great Basin in Nevada and spill over the Sierra Mountains in eastern California.

"Then they get local accelerations on top of that mountain, child of like water over a dam," Lareau adds. Some areas in California are especially prone to downsloping winds.

"I always like to say nothing good comes from an east wind in California," Lareau adds.

As the air descends at an accelerating pace It warms up and drives the relative humidity down. Which brings us to our second factor in the horror show: fuel-lots of it. It may be November, but California is still extremely dry, which means plenty of vegetation that's primed to go up in flames.

The east winds further dehydrate the vegetation. This is where the called evaporative demand comes in. "You can think about it as well as the atmosphere," says Lareau.

Very strong, in the case of the Camp Fire and those downslope winds. So it's just a matter of things being dry for the season in Northern California.

"This has us been drying out really, really fast over the past few days and into this event, "says Lareau. Rob Elvington the day before the camp Fire broke out.

So you've got hot, dry gusts of 40 or 50 miles per hour from the northeast push the fire, and wind, further accelerating the conflagration. As it moves along, embers fly out of the front of the fire. "As the fuels get drunk, the smaller and smaller spark can leap through the landscape," says Lareau. "It's hot, dry and windy, it's just that."

"It's hot, dry and windy, it's your ingredients," he adds. "We checked out all three here."

That's probably why the city of Paradise appears to be suffering from astonishing losses. have not been been supposed to since San Francisco in 1

906. They've been designed and built with better materials (read: a whole city is not made of wood alone anymore) and more defensible spaces. But with a conflagration like the Camp Fire, it can overwhelm an urban area by setting off hundreds or thousands of tiny fires, perhaps miles ahead of the conflagration itself.

"It looks like it's another case where you've got billions and embarrassments with the wind," Pyne says. "It only takes one to take out of a house or a hospital. If there's any point of vulnerability, all those embers will find it. "

As the Camp Fire raged Thursday, the Hill Fire broke out in Southern California, burning 10,000 acres so far. And yet another, the Woolsey Fire, has forced the evacuation of Malibu.

It was not coincidence that these were landed all at once. Santa Ana is now in the process of airing, says Lareau.

North or south, the state is extremely dry already. But these warm winds ripping through the sierras are only making matters worse, siphoning what little moisture California's vegetation has left. While the winds will likely be down a bit over the next couple of days, which could still bring more fires.

This is what a climate change reckoning looks like. "All of it is getting warmer," says Lareau. The atmosphere is it hotter is thirstier. "

The consequence is fires of unprecedented, almost unimaginable scale. Just over a year ago, the Tubbs Fire raged through the city of Santa Rosa, north of San Francisco, becoming the most destructive wildfire in state history.

"Mass shootings and mass burnings," Pyne says. "Welcome to the new America."


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