Triple-digit temperatures are here to stay – for a while.
It’s hot. According to NASA, July 2016 was the warmest July in 136 years of record keeping. In California, we have had hot days but not too hot.
“The local temperatures in July were above average but they weren’t spectacularly above average,” said Bill Patzert, climatologist and oceanographer at Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “In July it was only two degrees [Fahrenheit] above normal.”
Patzert said Southern California has experienced on-and-off heat waves.
“What you have is a high pressure zone that parks above [California] and sucks all the moisture out and elevates our temperatures,” he added. And we are to expect more of the same, or worse, in late August and September.
The real issue though is not the heat but the humidity, or lack thereof.
“It is so dry. This is the driest five consecutive years in historical record [since] 1870,” he added.
Humidity is down and rainfall is as well. Patzert said the total rainfall in downtown Los Angeles for the last five years should be 75 inches; however, the actual totals are a little over 50% of that.
“Fuel conditions are so extraordinarily dry. The firefighters are even surprised at the behavior of the recent fires,” he said. “They burn so fast, so wild and so uncontrollable.”
The prediction of El Niño’s great rainfall and flooding of last year did not pan out.
“My forecast for a wet El Niño weather was a bust,” Patzert said.
El Niño is the warming of the equatorial sea bringing rains on shore. Now there is a La Niña watch, which could create lower than normal temperatures for the equatorial sea.
“I call La Niña the ‘Diva of Drought,’” Patzert said, adding, “Wouldn’t it be ironic if it brought a wet winter?”
Whether La Niña brings cooler or hotter temperatures is not certain, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) meteorologist David Sweet.
“There really is not any reliable connection between La Niña and hot temperatures,” he said.
The effect is usually a dry season. Sweet added that the La Niña is expected to be in effect during the winter and into early next year. At present, though, it is the dry conditions that continue with California suffering through its fifth year of drought.
“The fuels, [especially] on the mountains, the vegetation, is exceptionally dry … at record levels,” Sweet said.
So far this year, NOAA has issued six Red Flag Warnings. He explained that a Red Flag Warning is when weather conditions are favorable for rapid fire growth.
Gusty winds and humidity that drops below 10% signal Red Flag conditions. There is a Red Flag Warning in effect through tonight at 9 p.m. for the Blue Cut Fire area in San Bernardino County that is now burning.
Weather is always on the minds of local fire fighters.
“For the most part, in the Santa Clarita area humidity is in the single digits,” said Capt. Murrieta of Los Angeles County Fire Station 82.
Fighting wildfires is tough
enough but the triple digit temperatures make the battle even more difficult.
“For us it starts before most of us come on duty,” Murrieta said of preparing for whatever faces the firefighters that day. “We are constantly watching the weather.”
He added that he reminds those under his command to constantly hydrate. He keeps a watchful eye over them when temperatures increase. They curtail their workout regimen in response to the heat, not wanting to be exhausted prior to getting called out.
“It is up to the captain or battalion chief to keep on eye on what the guys are doing,” Murrieta said of when firefighters are working wildfires in extreme heat. Some firefighters from Station 82 are working the Blue Cut Fire, and two are in northern California supporting firefighters there.
The Blue Cut Fire in the Cajon Pass has burned about 30,000 acres, with over 34,000 homes and about 83,000 people evacuated as of press time. The temperatures have been in triple digits and winds were expected Wednesday night.
“In my 40 years of fighting fires I have never seen fire behavior so extreme as it was [Tuesday],” said Mike Wakoksi, incident commander for the Blue Cut Fire during a press conference on Wednesday.
Patzert said he had heard that type of comment from other firefighters who are seeing fires react differently than in the past. He contributes that behavior to the extreme dry vegetation.
The heat does not just affect the fire conditions; it also affects air quality and general health.
The Air Quality Management District has listed areas near the Blue Cut Fire, including the several portions of San Bernardino, as unhealthy, though residents in Crescenta Valley who are sensitive to air quality – although listed as moderate – can still face issues due to the fires and heat.
And the weather is not going to be changing much in the near future.
“We are getting only a five-degree [Fahrenheit] cooling [next week],” Sweet said.
Temperatures are expected to stay hot the next few days with a little more humidity, but not enough to make a huge difference.
Those who work outside are advised to hydrate. Students, who are suffering the hot days of summer in school, have guidelines set by the Glendale Unified School District for responding to heat.
“We have certain protective measures put in place,” said Scott Anderlie, assistant director Student Support Services at GUSD. Those measures include curtailing activities, including physical education, when the temperatures rise.
Anderlie added if parents are concerned for their children’s health (some students are more susceptible to heat than others) they can call their school and talk to the school nurse.
As for the future, the warming trend globally appears to continue and wildfires are just part of California life.
“We are always setting records, not for cold [days] but for hot days,” Patzert said.
He added that centuries ago fires used to be the natural way of thinning forests out and controlling old growth but, with civilization encroaching more and more into the forests, fires are now something that are fought to protect lives and property.
“The history of the west is written in great fires and great droughts,” he said.