Excuse Californians if they’re ready to call it a year. Massive, house-destroying, car-melting wildfires have ripped across the state throughout the spring, summer, and fall. And the nightmare isn’t over yet.
With winter, the fire season was supposed to end as the rainy season kicked into gear, but one part of Southern California just burst into flames. Bone dry conditions and high winds fanned the blaze across 31,000 acres.
The fire, dubbed the Thomas Fire, rode 50 mph winds and quickly tore through the city of Ventura, located about 60 miles north of Los Angeles. It destroyed at least 150 structures in its path, and forced 27,000 to evacuate to less flammable ground. The latest inferno comes just two months after the most destructive fires in state history charred wine country in Northern California. In both cases, the conditions made it nearly impossible to hold back the flames.
“The prospects for containment are not good,” Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen said of the Thomas Fire, according the Los Angeles Times. “Really, Mother Nature is going to decide.”
Throughout the night, photos emerged of hillsides on fire, palm trees lit like matchsticks, and homes engulfed by a wall of flames. It’s an increasingly common scene as more and more people live in places prone to fire and climate change makes intense burns more common.
As dawn broke on Tuesday, the fire was still not contained. Smoke has drifted to Santa Monica, creating a gloomy haze. Perhaps most ominously, not a drop of rain is in sight.
This is supposed to be California’s wet season: The water year turns over on Oct. 1, and the rain and mountain snow are supposed to follow shortly thereafter. But this year, the southern half of California has been insanely dry.
Many areas have seen just 5 percent of their normal precipitation since October. That’s dried out the plentiful vegetation that grew during the extremely wet winter California had last year. Record-setting heat in recent weeks has helped dry things out further.
Now, a persistent ridge of high pressure has parked over the West Coast, and is forecast remain there for at least two weeks. That means unusually sunny, warm weather will be on tap for weeks to come (that same ridge is also melting out early season snowpack across the West). That weather could conspire with the Santa Ana winds that usually whip through Southern California at this time of year to turn an errant spark or ember into a firestorm.
The National Weather Service fire forecast indicates that extreme or critical fire weather could affect 20 million Southern Californians today and tomorrow. Through next week, that number balloons to 36 million.
The National Weather Service’s San Diego office took to Twitter to beg for a pattern change later this month. Right now, the city is on track to have tie 1929 for its driest start to the water year on record.
You may recall the “ridiculously resilient ridge,” a weather pattern that helped lock in one of California’s worst droughts on record until last winter’s record rains. The drought started in the winter of 2011-12 and persisted until last year, when heavy rainfall and snow finally wiped it out.
This new pattern looks very similar to the ridge that helped the drought become entrenched. Though it’s too early to tell whether it’s here to stay this time around, there are warning signs it could be a dry winter for Southern California.
“Patterns like this have a tendency to become self-reinforcing, lasting for much longer than more typical transient weather patterns and leading to prolonged stretches of unusual weather,” Daniel Swain, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Los Angeles, wrote on his California weather blog.
Swain coined the ridiculously resilient ridge moniker and researched it intensively, finding that ridges like it have become much more common than they used to be. In particular, warm water in the western Pacific has a role to play in driving this pattern. That’s bad news, because the western Pacific is warm right now, and it’s projected to stay that way for much of the winter.
There’s also a weak La Niña, a climate pattern that favors drier weather over the southern tier of the U.S. It’s forecast to last through the winter, and according the Climate Prediction Center, the odds are in favor of dry conditions over the next three months for every inch of the state south of the Bay Area. Which is probably the last thing Californians want to hear.
Below are some more tweets documenting the Thomas Fire.