A large number of fires were started by lightning strikes in California over the weekend of August 15-16, 2020. They resulted from a storm system that moved along the coast of California and produced copious amounts of dry lightning through primarily northern California around the greater San Fransisco Bay area. I’m including a number of articles, imagery and videos to document the resulting series of fires and the impact the resulting smoke has had on the upper western United States.
It is uncommon for such major lightning storms to hit the greater San Fransisco Bay area, combined with drought conditions and very hot temperatures the conditions for extreme fire behavior were optimal. What unfolds is an epic conflagration that is devastating for the region and impacts the majority of the western United States with smoke as projected in the National Weather Service forecast image above.
- CalFire Incidents Overview:
- As of Sept. 6, 2020: 1,848,311 Acres Burned, 7,448 Wildfires, 7 Fatalities, 3,812 Structures Damaged or Destroyed.
- California Daily Wildfire Update:
2020 California Wildfires
The 2020 California wildfire season is a series of ongoing wildfires that are burning across the state of California. The peak of the wildfire season usually occurs between August and November when hot, dry winds are most frequent. The wildfire season typically does not end until the first significant rainstorm of winter arrives, which is usually around October in Northern California, and roughly between late October to December in Southern California. As of August 23, 2020, a total of 7,002 fires have burned 1,423,076 acres (575,898 ha) according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
On August 19, 2020, California Governor Gavin Newsom reported that the state was battling 367 known fires, many sparked by intense thunderstorms on August 16–17 caused by moisture from Tropical Storm Fausto. Response and evacuations were complicated by a historic heatwave and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The governor declared a state of emergency on August 18.
California’s Wildfire and Covid-19 Disasters Just Collided
Rare thunderstorms have peppered the California landscape with conflagrations, pouring smoke into the Bay Area—all as the state struggles with the pandemic.
WIRED, August 20, 2020
By Matt Simon
You’d be hard-pressed to dream up a nastier confluence of crises besieging California right now. Over the weekend, Tropical Storm Fausto propelled moisture from off the coast of Baja California up into the Bay Area, spawning rare summer thunderstorms. At the same time, the region has been baking under an intense heat wave that has desiccated vegetation, which all too easily combusted when those thunderstorms rolled through. Since Monday, almost 400 wildfires have broken out, most of them sparked by lightning. Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated across Northern California, and 350,000 acres have burned so far. Overextended fire crews have contained very little of it thus far, as still more wildfires continue to ignite across the state.
California Wildfires Can Create Their Own Terrifying Weather
Sparked by freak thunderstorms, the blazes changed wind patterns and could potentially lead to fire tornadoes and pyrocumulonimbus clouds.
WIRED, August 21, 2020
By Matt Simon
California is, once again, burning. A freak summer thunderstorm last weekend swept through the northern part of the state, sparking nearly 400 wildfires, many of which have turned into conflagrations of stunning scale. As of Friday morning, two groups of wildfires, the SCU Lightning Complex near San Jose and the LNU Lightning Complex near Napa, have burned 230,000 acres and 220,000 acres, respectively—that’s 700 square miles total. Fire crews are stretched far too thin to deal with this many wildfires at once and have barely contained any of those blazes. In Santa Cruz, the CZU August Lightning Complex has burned an additional 50,000 acres and has led to mass evacuations. Five people have been killed.
At the core of the crisis is some very weird weather, all across the board. For one thing, California isn’t supposed to be peppered with lightning strikes in August. But as Tropical Storm Fausto moved north from Baja California last week, it hit cooler waters and fell apart, sending a stream of moisture into Northern California. “To have that much thunder and lightning come through California, that in itself is rare,” says NBC Bay Area meteorologist Rob Mayeda. “But to see more than 350 wildfires start just like that, that’s a convergence zone of very unfortunate conditions.”
Scientist Explains How a Fire Tornado Forms | WIRED Video | CNE
Extreme wildfires can get so intense that the heat from the fire can generate its own weather patterns. In rare cases, like during the 2018 wildfire in Redding California, the wildfire created its own tornado, or as it is more commonly known: a firenado. Many videos show fire formations labeled as firenadoes — but according to atmospheric scientist Neal Lareau, only two known fire tornadoes have ever been caught on video.
California Fires Keep Growing, With No End in Sight
Gov. Gavin Newsom pledged that the state was “putting everything we have” on the ravaging wildfires, acknowledging that even that was not enough to blunt their spread.
The New York Times, August 21, 2020
Reporting was contributed by Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, Kellen Browning, Jill Cowan, Jacey Fortin, Henry Fountain and Alan Yuhas.
Here’s what you need to know:
- Newsom asks for help as more than 771,000 acres have burned.
- Smoke is making the air unhealthy, and it’s spreading all the way to Nebraska.
- With local officials stretched thin, residents answer calls for help on social media.
- Evacuees seeking shelter must weigh risk of the coronavirus.
- California’s ‘lightning siege’ has connections to climate change.
Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday pledged that California was “putting everything we have” on the wildfires ravaging the state, while acknowledging that even that was not enough to stamp out the 560 fires that have burned over 771,000 acres.
Despite having deployed almost 12,000 firefighters statewide, California was still struggling on Friday to contain the blazes in the state’s north, which are swelling further and forcing more people to flee their homes. Mr. Newsom said he had asked for help from states near and far — including on the East Coast — and even from Australia.
At least 119,000 people have already been ordered to leave their homes, Mr. Newsom said, and fire officials ordered more to flee on Friday, including along the Russian River near Santa Rosa.
In total, the fires have burned an area larger than the size of Rhode Island since last weekend, and much of that was devoured by two massive groups of fires in Northern California. Those fire groupings, the L.N.U. Lightning Complex in Napa Valley and the S.C.U. Lightning Complex east of Silicon Valley, are the second- and fourth-largest fires in state history, Cal Fire said.
And even as the fires grow further, forecasters with the National Weather Service’s Bay Area office warned that there could be more dry thunderstorms this weekend, potentially bringing a dangerous combination of lightning and wind to an already-burning region.
Current Wildland Fires
California Office of Emergency Services
August 22, 2020
California Fires Map Tracker
The New York Times, August 23, 2020
By Matthew Bloch and Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio
L.N.U. Lightning Complex
As of Saturday, this group of fires had consumed 314,207 acres — making it the second-largest fire in California history. It doubled in size Wednesday and nearly doubled again on Thursday, stretching across Napa and four surrounding counties. The fires have destroyed at least 560 homes and other buildings, many of them in Vacaville, and are responsible for at least four deaths as well as four injuries, according to Cal Fire, the state’s fire agency. Firefighters said those blazes are 15 percent contained.
S.C.U. Lightning Complex
East of Silicon Valley, the S.C.U. Lightning Complex, a group of about 20 fires, had spread across 291,968 acres — largely in less populous areas — and was 10 percent contained as of Friday morning, Cal Fire said. It is now the third-largest fire in state history, and is 10 percent contained. Its proximity to San Jose had led to some evacuation orders, and two emergency workers and two civilians have been injured.
C.Z.U. August Lightning Complex
This combination of fires forced 77,000 people in San Mateo and Santa Cruz Counties to evacuate, including the entire University of California, Santa Cruz campus, which was placed under a mandatory evacuation order on Thursday night. The winds subsided overnight Friday and into Saturday, helping firefighters battle the blaze. The fires have grown to 63,000 acres, consumed almost 100 buildings and are 5 percent contained.
The River Fire south of Salinas in Monterey County had burned 44,987 acres as of Saturday morning, destroying 16 structures and threatening more than 6,300. It is 12 percent contained. It has forced more than 5,000 evacuations, according to the Monterey County Sheriff’s Office. Four firefighters have sustained minor injuries.
This combination of 20 fires was started by lightning in Mendocino, and had grown to more than 117,000 acres as of Friday, with most of its growth coming earlier in the week. The fire was 6 percent contained by Friday, and evacuation orders included parts of Glenn County and the Mendocino National Forest.
What are the biggest fires in California history?
LNU, SCU lightning complexes join the list
The Sacramento Bee, August 22, 2020
By Maria Heeter
Nearly 12,000 firefighters are on the front lines of almost two dozen major wildfires and complexes, spanning the entire state of California. These wildfires have burned more than one million acres as of Sunday morning — roughly the land area of California’s 10 largest cities.
And now, two of the largest wildfires raging in Northern California have shot to the top of the state’s superlatives list.
Fires, Blackouts, a Heat Wave and a Pandemic: California’s ‘Horrible’ Month
The nation’s most-populated state is facing multiple crises, including 23 major wildfires raging while the daily death toll from the coronavirus is above 100.
The New York Times, August 19, 2020
By Thomas Fuller
VACAVILLE, Calif. — How many things can go wrong at once?
On Wednesday millions of California residents were smothered by smoke-filled skies as dozens of wildfires raged out of control. They braced for triple-digit temperatures, the sixth day of a punishing heat wave that included a recent reading of 130 degrees in Death Valley. They braced for possible power outages because the state’s grid is overloaded, the latest sign of an energy crisis. And they continued to fight a virus that is killing 130 Californians a day.
Even for a state accustomed to disaster, August has been a terrible month.
Across the state there were 23 major fires reported on Wednesday and more than 300 smaller ones.
In the San Francisco Bay Area alone there were 15 wildfires, most of them burning out of control and feeding off the grasses and shrubs desiccated by the extreme heat. Thousands of residents were ordered evacuated in the wine country of Napa County and from the hills above Silicon Valley in Santa Cruz and San Mateo Counties.
In Southern California, fires were reported in Ventura and Riverside Counties — and sweeping through one of the world’s biggest collections of Joshua trees, burning a 43,000-acre stretch of the Mojave National Preserve. Images of the fire showed the iconic trees shooting flames into the air like blowtorches.
The evening breezes that many Californians rely on to chase the heat from their homes had vanished. And for those with air-conditioning, the power outages were a constant threat to that remedy.
But closer to the fires, residents had more urgent concerns.
Heat is turbocharging fires, drought and tropical storms this summer
The Washington Post, August 21, 2020
Climate and Environment
By Darryl Fears, Faiz Siddiqui, Sarah Kaplan and Juliet Eilperin
SAN FRANCISCO — First came the lightning, with cracks of thunder that woke Hope Weng from sleep. “I thought it was someone wheeling out one of the garbage bins,” the 23-year-old said. Then came the wildfires, mixing with the unbearable heat that was tough to escape in her Mountain View, Calif., apartment with no air conditioning. “I’m hot and I want to let the window open to let in cool air, but the air also smells like fire.”
America is roasting.
At least 140 Western weather stations notched record highs in the past 10 days as a thermometer in California’s Death Valley hit 130 degrees Fahrenheit, one of the highest temperatures measured on Earth. Eighty million U.S. residents are under excessive heat advisories. More than 35 wildfires are raging in California, burning 125,000 acres in the San Francisco Bay area alone, threatening 25,000 businesses and homes this week. Parts of the country are suffering drought conditions. And in the Atlantic Ocean, a marine heat wave is fueling what is becoming an unusually active storm season.
Death Valley soars to 130 degrees, potentially Earth’s highest temperature since at least 1931
Typically, such blazing heat records fall during July, which is the Northern Hemisphere’s hottest month
The Washington Post, August 16, 2020
Capital Weather Gang
By Jason Samenow
In the midst of a historic heat wave in the West, the mercury in Death Valley, Calif., surged to a searing 130 degrees on Sunday afternoon, possibly setting a world record for the highest temperature ever observed during the month of August.
If the temperature is valid, it would also rank among the top-three highest temperatures ever measured on the planet at any time and may, in fact, be the highest.
The temperature in Death Valley hit 130 degrees at 3:41 p.m. Pacific time on Sunday, according to the National Weather Service. If verified, the reading would break Death Valley’s previous August record by three degrees, the Weather Service tweeted.