Thursday, July 19, 2018

Winds Drive the Explosive Substation Fire Near the Dalles

One of the most explosively growing fires in the nation occurred during the past two days near the Dalles, Oregon, just south of the Columbia River...and winds have been a big factor.  It appears to have begun about 5 miles SE of the Dalles around 3:30 PM Tuesday and has grown to over 70,000 acres (see map)

To get a feeling for the growth, let me show you some MODIS satellite images.  Below is a series of satellite images using wavelengths the show burned areas.  The Columbia River is evident, as is Mt. Hood.

 On Tuesday...nothing...but you can see some indication of the Columbia Gorge fire of last year.

 Wednesday.... a big  burned area (red color) is evident, with a run of roughly 18 miles

Today around noon--extensive growth of the fire.

The fire is growing in grass, sage, and in some of the extensive wheat fields of the region.   Such fuels burn explosively and are known as "flashy".

The fire was apparently human caused, with the media suggesting some kind of criminal investigation.   But looking at the temperature and humidity at the Dalles, temperatures were quite warm (around 100F) for the days leading to the incident.  That is about 10F above normal.
With warm, dry conditions over northeastern Oregon during the past month, the crop moisture index showed very dry conditions in the area of the fire.

But what about the winds, which can stoke a fire and cause it to run rapidly in spac?.  Winds really surged later on Tuesday, and have been blowing since then--sustained winds around 20-25 mph with gusts above 30 mph.  Highly predictable when marine air surges into western WA this time of the year.
Ironically, the wind acceleration was associated with cool air moving into western Oregon and Washington, enhancing the pressure difference across the Columbia Gorge.  The winds should weaken tomorrow, as the west side of the region begins to warm.   Thus, there is a substantial hope that the fire will slow and hopefully brought under control.   So far, the fire season has been relatively normal over our region, but the threat is increasing steadily as we enter the warmest period of the year.


  1. You could see the area burned on the visible satellite images today. There wasn’t much of a smoke plume so maybe they’re getting a upper hand. There were two impressive columns of smoke east of Ellensburg this afternoon. Showed up well in the last few loop images.

  2. Usually the winds die down in the Gorge by June. That hasn't happened this year. It's been windy all the time -- no let up. It's not the heat, or the dry air. It's the wind. This has been an unusually windy year here. Not only does it (obviously) spread fires, but it contributes to fire by drying out the vegetation even more than the normal summer climate does.

    By the way, Cliff, you're an educated man, and you are eminent in your field. The meteorologists have screwed up "normal" when discussing the weather. "Normal" is not "average." Temps in the 100-105 degree range are hot in The Dalles, but common enough to be part of a normal summer.

    Yes, it was 10 degrees above average, but the heat isn't abnormal. I don't know what the standard deviation of summer temps in The Dalles is, but I wouldn't be surprised if a 100-degree day in late July is within one standard deviation.

    Again: The temps down here haven't been abnormal. We had a hot week, but there are lots of hot weeks here. What's really doing this is the wind. That has not been normal. It should have been a lot calmer after about late May.

  3. Would it be helpful to do a controlled burn to areas that always catch fire? Vantage hill on I-90 burns every summer. A good 100 yd preburned buffer should negate the effect smokers have who toss their butts out the window. Get rid of the wooden guardrail posts while you're at it. Seriously it's not rocket science.

  4. It would be interesting to see if there has been an upward trend in brush fires in the West since that can't be blamed on poor forestry management.

  5. You seem to indicate fire season “normal” this year but why are they reporting a “record number” of fires in Washington already? I’m confused.

  6. Who is reporting record number of fires in Washington or Oregon? That is not true....cliff

  7. @TW B & Charles Primm, neither of you are distinguishing between grass fires and forest fires. Grass fires are a perennial danger east of the mountains. I am going to make a guess: You live west of the mountains. If so, you don't hear of 90%+ of the grass fires. They ignite easily, spread fast, and are relatively easily extinguished except when they are driven by high winds.

    Forest fires are different. You need more prologed drought, although in recent years they are becoming more common as the result of decades of accumulated federal mismanagement of public forests. The proof statement? Go check the forest fire experience in private forests, compared to public ones. While doing so, please put your politics in check.

  8. Well placeholder, I'm simply interested in the data at this point. You seem to be the political one. And, you said yourself that winds have been unusually high this year (and were instrumental in the California tragedy). Again it would be interesting to know if there is an upward trend in wind velocities in the west. Note, I worked in the Tri-cities for several years.

  9. Placeholder's comments seem well-reasoned to me. I suppose I should say "fingers crossed," but I we're not suffering a prolonged drought in the west-side Cascade mountains, and I've been watching weather here (at the gateway to the Mt Baker Snoqualmie Forest) for almost 45 years. Lowland conditions (like Seattle's) do not equate. The biggest forest fire risk in this area are in patches snags (dead trees) of forest where logging was suspended. Various tree diseases have wreaked havoc in some places during the last 20 years; road maintenance budgets have been slashed because there's no logging revenue. If we do have real forest fires they'll be difficult to fight. By the way - as-of this writing, there have only been 11 days without measurable precipitation, and humidity has not been lower than 45% up here - yet. It is simply summer, and a fairly normal one.

  10. @TW B, I'm an amateur semi-weather nerd, and have noticed that it's become harder to find local climatological data than it used to be. This year in the Gorge, the stronger-than-usual winds have been a topic of local conversation. Spring seemed cooler than usual -- not by a lot, but some.

    If Cliff feels like doing the deep dive on The Dalles's climatological data, I'd be interested. Last year was hotter than this year (so far), but not as windy. The real data there would come from wind turbine power records, but I don't think that data get released.

    I don't politicize the weather. The AGW cult does that.

  11. I'm genuinely confused, not meaning to pick a battle here. Google it and you'll see NUMEROUS stories. Lot's of hype about how this is portending to be one of worst years ever. Seriously google it yourself and look at all the stories that pop up. I turn to you for a better explanation, that's all.

  12. @Ellen, where I live, summers are normally hot and dry, and wildfire is a perennial risk. On the heat and humidity fronts, I'm not noticing anything unusual this year. But the wind! That's been the ticket in the Columbia Gorge; last year, it had been much drier than usual. Had the wind not done what I've been talking about this year, it'd be no big deal and we wouldn't have had the substation fire.

    Incidentally, the substation fire did take one life, four houses, and a yet-undetermined amount of cropland (wheat fields), but it mostly burned uncultivated land in the Deschutes River canyon. It could have been much worse.

    I very strongly agree with what you are implying about forest management and forest fires. The eco-Seattle types managed to get a whole of logging discontinued, and the result has been what you mentioned, entailing growing forest fire risk. It's not the only reason for heightened forest fire danger, but it's almost certainly the biggest.

    No one (not meteorologists, not so-called "climate scientists") seems to want to spend a lot of time with the people who know the most: farmers and private forest managers. There is a great deal of science in both specialties, but the prescriptions and conclusions tend to contradict what the various worthies want to tell everyone.

    In particular, I'd love to see reliable, unbiased data on forest fire experience in private forests vs. public ones. Who knows, maybe someone might learn something. Oh, but wait! "You can always tell a 'progressive,' but you cannot ever tell a 'progressive' a single thing."

  13. Cliff: Regarding the number of wildfires this year, there is some good discussion about this on one of the local hiking boards:

    NW Hikers: A bad start to fire season?

    Someone makes the point that many of the incident tracking systems are biased towards larger fires that need more coordination over a longer period of time. Others claim that firefighters on the east side are fatigued by dealing with a higher-than-normal number of smaller fires.

    No personal knowledge here, but thought you might find it interesting.