July 04, 2015

Fireworks, Wildfires, and Smoke

You have to ask yourself, are personal fireworks worth the risk?    One way to view the risk are the statistics for human-caused versus natural  (lightning-induced) wildfires.  For the entire western U.S., here are the statistics of wildfire initiation dates for an extended period from the following paper:

The biggest wildfire initiation date is July 4.   Huge peak for the human-caused fires and the top peak overall on that date.
Here is a similar plot for only the Northwest and coastal California (Mediterranean).  Natural on left, human-caused on the right.    July 4th is evident.

natural                    human-caused

Because of the anomalous warmth, the Northwest is tinder-dry--much drier than on a normal fourth of July.  So the potential for initiation of wildfires by fireworks is much higher this year.  And roof fires in urban areas are also of concern.   

Is the potential for fire initiation worth the bangs/colors of fireworks?  I am surprised that state and local officials have not initiated a state-wide ban on personal fireworks.  They should have.   So now it is up to the population to put them away for a year.    It is simply not worth the risk.

And then there are the air quality issues.   Air quality degrades substantially after firework displays, which include not only small particles (PM2.5) but toxic heavy metals used for coloring.

Here is an example of the concentration of small particles around July 4th last year at Seattle and Tacoma from data available on the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency website..  Huge last on July 4th and early on July 5th.

And, of course, any wildfires initiated by fireworks will inject huge numbers of particles in the air.

Many of you are asking whether and when this will end.   One of the most powerful tools available is the North American ensemble (many forecasts) called NAEFS.   Here are the NAEFS forecasts for temperature, precipitation, wind and clouds for the next two weeks. for Seattle  The models are suggesting a change in regime around July 10th, with more normal temperatures, more clouds, and stronger winds.

Not cool or wet, but closer to normal.

Remember during a NORMAL year we are now entering the warmest, sunniest, driest time of the year.   That is something you should expect.

Finally, let me note that there has been a lack of lightning the past few days, caused by the same ridge that is producing the warmth.  That LESSENS the numbers of new fires, particularly in remote areas that are hard to get at.  With below-normal lightning this might not be a major/record wildfire season. I wish the media would consider this in their stories.


  1. "With below-normal lightning this might not be a major/record wildfire season. I wish the media would consider this in their stories."

    Might be a little early for that statement, considering there is a nearly 1300 acre lighting caused fire burning in a rain forest. Also, the major fire-causing lightning events don't typically arrive until late July when monsoonal moisture creeps its way north. The comments about fireworks are spot on. Energy Release Component values for fuels in the Puget Sound area are well above the 95th seasonal percentiles, which we typically don't see until well into August. Major brush fires with structures threatened are a very real possibility in Western Washington. 4th of July fire conditions are the worst I've seen in over 20 years in the fire service.

  2. I spend much of my work days in the central cascades, and the forests there are in need of a little lightning induced natural cleansing.

  3. Before anyone else gets to it, I am going to take something you said, really anything, and treat it as an absolute. I will accuse you of not understanding and ignore words you use like "consider" and "might." After making you sound like a wingnut, I'll cite some anecdotal evidence about my own personal experiences along with things I've read online to show that I know better than you. Hopefully everyone in comment-land will now know that you are discredited and it was me that prevented another so-called "expert" from spreading catastrophic ignorance. You're welcome, commenters, I just saved you the effort.

  4. Cliff, you're the one missing the point. You don't just subtract off 1 F to get the heat wave's temperature without AGW -- that only would be true in a linear system. The atmosphere isn't a linear system. Heat flows -- AGW means there is more of it in the climate sytem. More can temporarily collect regionally from other regions. That means fluctuations can be bigger, bigger than just the 1 F, due to other factors going on caused by the extra heating.

    Stefan Rahmstorf and Dim Coumou give a good example here:

    By the way, Oregon has warmed 1.7 F over the last 80 years.

  5. Cliff,

    Just wanted to point out that the entire Wenatchee Valley instituted a fireworks ban (except for professional shows) after the Sleepy Hollow fire.

    Regarding Justin's comment: I go back and forth with this blog. I like Cliff and he is certainly an expert in meteorology, so I trust him implicitly on atmospheric science. That said, in recent posts he has demonstrated a lack of understanding about basic forest hydrology and fisheries science. For example he has said that this snowpack drought will not lead to more dangerous wildfire conditions (a different thing than more wildfires, just like a snowball is not incompatible with global warming, a near average or below average number of wildfires is not incompatible with a high wildfire danger. That's just luck.) In a comment he also claimed that Columbia river fish will be fine because we got plenty of snow in Canada. Except all that snow is behind Chief Joe and Grand Coulee, where fish don't go. There is very little mainstem spawning and so the Columbia basin stocks will be affected by the low flies and high water temperature in the eastern tributary rivers. We will probably start to see some prespawming mortality.

    Lastly to the extent Cliff comments on the domain of science he is the expert in, I think.his readers should trust him, but when he strays into politics and advocacy, I think his readers should be pushing back there. Especially when these are misguided policies, like handing out free water to industrial agriculture. Unlike most liberals, Cliff sure seems to love the Bureau of Reclamation. It's hard for me to think of a federal agency with a worse record on the environment and social justice.

    I for one got so passionate about his erroneous claims about there not being a wildfire danger from a snowpack drought, because I fail to see the harm in being appropriately cautious and worried about human ignition fires. This is a popular blog, and its not unreasonable to think that there is chance that a reader of his will ignore a campfire ban when visiting the East side because Cliff is the expert and he must know more than the benighted yokels that manage the Eastern forests. I can probably be more articulate and reasoned in my counter arguments, but I ain't no wingnut.

  6. David,
    You are simply incorrect about this...let me take it one level further. Non-linearities can go either way: they can increase OR decrease the signal from an input. There is no need to speculate about the feedbacks here in the NW...we have many model simulation, which I assume you have not examined. These runs do NOT suggest a positive feedback from the non-linearities, in fact JUST THE OPPOSITE. The warming is moderated in our region by the ocean....so there is key effect, lessening the warming compared to other locations. So speculating about some unknown feedbacks that will cause our summers to warm if not helpful, when our simulations suggest that reality is far different. There are other negative feedbacks for our area and in fact I have a student working on this exact issue, so we have thought about it quite deeply...cliff

  7. I hike in the Olympics a lot - and I have never seen such dry tinderbox conditions.

    I emailed the governor about my concern asking him to declare a state of emergency.
    I did receive a response saying the Governor does not have the power to ban fireworks.

    I find it hard to believe that there was no way for the Governor can't declare a state of
    emergency with such dangerous conditions existing.

  8. Hi Cliff,

    People in Whatcom County woke up to grey smoke filled skies this morning - quite depressing.

    With 9 am temps in the mid 80's just north east of Bellingham, I think we are in with a serious chance of beating our record high (94 degrees, I believe), if the sun breaks through the smoke today.

    An unusual weather day to say the least!


Please make sure your comments are civil. Name calling and personal attacks are not appropriate.

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