Temperatures well over 100°F, low humidity, strong winds, and pre-existing drought conditions across the western United States have created the perfect storm for wildfires. The current drought is the result of extremely below average precipitation and warmer than normal temperatures over the last few months, and has been given the worst possible rank according to the National Drought Mitigation Center.
Heat waves –– defined by the National Weather Service as two or more days of abnormally hot weather –– are common in July and August in the United States. Every region has different heatwave qualifications, but each is typically associated with large, dominant areas of high pressure that park over a region for several days or weeks.
This exact phenomenon is fueling the current stretch of triple-digit temperatures in California and the Pacific Northwest, where all-time record high temperatures were broken on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. Portland and Seattle both saw their hottest temperatures ever recorded, with highs of 116 and 106 degrees respectively, while Canada set a new national record high temperature of 47.5 degrees Celsius, or 118 degrees Fahrenheit.
When the warmth and dryness combine, dry vegetation is extremely susceptible to being ignited. Lightning strikes, tossed cigarettes, and unmonitored campfires are just a few of the ways large wildfires can be started.
2020 was a record-breaking year for wildfires in California, as over 10,000 fires burned more than 4.2 million acres of land. Firefighters across the Southwest are on high alert again as the severe drought and blistering heat point towards another potentially devastating year. Several wildfires have already scorched parts of California and Arizona this past week, with more fires expected.
Trends Point to More Frequent and Intense Wildfires & Droughts
Every year there are new records for heat, drought, and wildfires across the United States. As temperatures rise across the planet, water evaporates more readily, drying out surfaces and leading to more widespread drought conditions. This is an example of a positive feedback loop –– as climate change produces more heat waves, droughts increase, which in turn produces more frequent heat waves. This trend is only expected to worsen as the planet continues to warm.
2021 Drought & Wildfire Outlook
The current Western U.S. drought is projected to be the worst in the last 1,200 years. Though the Southwest will likely see some much needed relief from the North American monsoon season, drought-busting rains are not expected. Forecasters at the Climate Prediction Center (CPC) predict that the current drought conditions will likely continue throughout the summer for California and the Four Corners region. In southern Arizona and New Mexico, drought conditions will improve but still remain as the monsoon season arrives.
The recent heatwave combined with low precipitation over the last year has caused vegetation to dry up. The Western U.S. also experiences powerful Santa Ana Winds, which usher in warm, dry air. Given these conditions, 2021 is expected to have another extremely active wildfire season.
Although wildfires have serious impacts on health and the economy, improving weather models allow regions to prepare ahead of time. In fact, weather patterns favorable for the development of wildfires can be well predicted up to 7 days in advance.
In California, some major utility companies plan Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS) when conditions favor wildfires. This prevents electricity equipment from igniting a fire, as was seen in the devastating 2018 Camp Fire. In New Mexico, the use of campfires, stoves, and grills are prohibited outside of protected campsites, and smoking is limited to vehicles or indoor buildings. California has already started to diminish the water supply to some farmers to preserve water. With no end to the drought in sight, public parks and national forests could also be closed to the public.
The Importance of Wildfire Visibility Data
As we move into an era where droughts, heatwaves, and wildfires dominate headlines across the western United States, data on active wildfires will become increasingly crucial to protect the public.
“Confronting the worsening wildfire seasons in the Western US is one of the most significant weather-related challenges of our generation” says Joshua Feldman, Head of Meteorology at WeatherOptics.
The WeatherOptics Impact API updates daily, indicating where active wildfires are located and what regions are most at risk. This data can allow businesses to understand when and where evacuations may be needed, and help global supply chains navigate increasingly dangerous conditions.
WeatherOptics also plans to release air quality and smoke parameters related to wildfire conditions later this year, as well as predictive analytics to help businesses understand what areas may become at risk in the future.