Weather Watch

As Chimney Fire burns, climate change increases potential for more wildfires

Smoke from the Chimney and Rey fires created an orange-reddish sunset at Baywood Park in Los Osos on Friday evening.
Smoke from the Chimney and Rey fires created an orange-reddish sunset at Baywood Park in Los Osos on Friday evening.

Globally, NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the World Meteorological Organization all announced that 2015 was the hottest year on record, shattering the previous record set in 2014 by more than one-tenth of a degree Celsius.

Now, 2016 is on pace to break the 2015 record.

As temperatures continue to rise, the Sierra Nevada snowpack is expected to diminish while precipitation patterns continue to change. These conditions will increase the flammability of vegetation over time.

In fact, the California Climate Change Center estimates that wildfire risk will increase about 300 percent by 2050 compared with the 1990–2010 average in terms of frequency of fire.

This year is especially problematic for firefighters. Last year’s El Niño produced the most rain along the Central Coast since the 2010 rain season. Unlike the previous four years, when the hills struggled to turn green in the winter, this year saw huge amounts of grasses and other seasonal vegetation that turned our hills to beautiful hues of brown and gold this spring.

Unfortunately, this abundant foliage has become fuel for wildfires.

To make matters worse, the Climate Prediction Center forecasts above-normal temperatures throughout the western part of the United States through November. In fact, this June was the warmest on record for many Central Coast locations, and July was nearly 2 degrees warmer than average.

All of these ingredients are coming together to produce a fierce fire season — perhaps one of the worst in state history.

As of Saturday afternoon, numerous fires were burning throughout the state: The Blue Cut Fire in San Bernardino County was 37,020 acres with 68 percent containment; the Rey Fire in Santa Barbara County was 10,732 acres and 10 percent contained.

The Chimney Fire in northern San Luis Obispo County was 17,000 acres and 33 percent contained; the Clayton Fire in Lake County was 3,929 acres and 80 percent contained; the Soberanes Fire in Monterey County was at 83,830 acres with 60 percent containment; and, finally, the Cedar Fire in Sequoia National Forest in Kern County was 14,543 acres and only 5 percent contained.

The most problematic fire for the Central Coast is the Chimney Fire, which has destroyed 46 homes and outbuildings and damaged another seven. The fire was threatening Hearst Castle as it moved westward toward the coastline from Nacimiento Lake.

Tribune columnist and reporter Kathe Tanner wrote on her Facebook page, “When North Coast residents and visitors were dining at Redwood Cafe in Cambria, a company of 20 firefighters came in from the Chimney Fire. One by one, the other customers told restaurant owner Rick Pfannkuche that they wanted to buy a meal for a firefighter. Not one of those firefighters had to pay for his or her meal.”

For the past week, if you weren’t in the general vicinity of these fires — for example, in Cambria — persistent southerly winds kept much of the smoke to the north or northeast of the Central Coast.

That was until Friday, when the Rey Fire broke out along Highway 154 east of Santa Ynez and allowed smoke to drift over much of northern Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.

For most of this week, fresh to strong (19 to 31 mph) northwesterly winds will develop along the coastline during the afternoon hours and will push the majority of the smoke toward the east; however, during the night and morning hours, light to gentle variable winds will allow varying amounts of smoke to drift over many Central Coast locations.

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To assist Cal Fire and municipal fire departments, PG&E has begun aerial fire patrols across Northern and Central California, including the Central Coast, seven days a week.

These crews primarily fly during the afternoon hours when wildfires are most likely to ignite. PG&E’s meteorology department uses state-of-the-art weather forecast model data and information from the National Weather Service, United States Forest Service Wildland Fire Assessment System and other agencies to evaluate short- to medium-term fire weather risks across Northern and Central California.

These daily maps can be found on my Twitter feed at https://twitter.com/PGE_John

John Lindsey is PG&E’s Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant marine meteorologist and a media relations representative. Email him at pgeweather@pge.com.

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