Posts Tagged ‘wind’

Wind-driven fires

December 26th, 2017 1 comment

We often tend to think that the main driver of fires is drought, but in many cases wind is extremely important; and the perfect combination is a strong wind after a long drought period. Foehn-type (adiabatic) winds are especially important for fires as they are fast-moving hot and dry winds that quickly dry out the vegetation, and thus they spread the fire very easily. In the recent months, we have witnessed several very destructive wind-driven fires, affecting many infrastructures and lives. Wind-driven fires are common in Southern California where the Santa Ana winds blow after the summer. They typically occur in October, although this year they came later, in December. For instance, the Thomas fire started at the early December, and has now become the largest wildfire in California history (> 110,000 ha, Fig. 1) with more than 1000 houses destroyed, more than 100,000 residents evacuated, and several fatalities. This fire has been largely driven by Santa Ana winds.

Although less frequently, there are also wind-driven fires in Northern California, the wind is called Diablo wind. This year Diablo driven fires has been particularly important and destructive; during October more than a dozen wildfires north of San Francisco had killed more than 40 people, burned approximately 65,000 ha and destroyed more than 7,000 structures (see also,,

Both Santa Ana and Diablo winds are Foehn winds going down from the mountains (inland) to the coast (Santa Ana and Diablo winds at a glance). Wind-driven fires are natural in California and have been generating large fires since long ago, but the increasing population living in the wildland-urban interface is making these fire more destructive than ever. In addition, climate change is extending the fire season into the late fall and winter, increasing the probability of large fires.

Wind-driven fires have also occurred this year in north-western Iberia (Spain and Portugal), caused by the hurricane Ophelia. Typically, tropical hurricanes do not get to Europe, but this year the Ophelia touched western Europe (probably due to the warming of the ocean) and spread massive fires in Portugal and Spain that were fuelled with large poor-managed forest plantations; the ashes from these fires reached England and Ireland (Fig. 2 below).

In conclusion, global change is likely modifying wind patterns, and thus to understand new fire regimes we need to predict wind regime; however, predicting future wind regimes is more difficult than predicting temperature changes.

Figure 1. The beginning of the Thomas fire (started in Ventura, Southern California) was clearly driven by Santa Ana winds (Image: NASA / MODIS, December 5, 2017). This fire has grown and become the largest wildfire in California history (> 110,000 ha).


Figure 2. Massive October wildfires in NW Iberia were fueled by the hurricane Ophelia; smoke and ashes from these fires reached England and Ireland  (Image: NASA Terra / MODIS, October 16, 2017); see also Severe Weather Europe. You can see an animation from NASA Earth here.


More on fire and wind


Fire – wind interactions

October 30th, 2015 1 comment

I’ve just had the opportunity to see some of the consequences of the hurricane Patricia that affected Jalisco, Mexico, last weekend. Here is the effects on a Pinus dauglasiana forest in the Sierra de Manantlán biosfere reserve. Some parts of this forest had burned several years ago (< 10 years) mainly as understory fire, and some trees were injured at the base but most survived (as in any typical undertory fires); there were also some crowning in small patches. Fire killed many understory fire-sensitive broadleaved shrubs, and were replaced by a high density of the pine seedlings (Fig. 1); there were also some plants resprouting (e.g., Quercus, Arbutus, etc.). Now, the strong winds of the hurricane is interacting with fire in two ways: (1) the wind have killed some of the fire-injured trees that had survived the fire (Fig. 1); and (2) the wind has greatly increased the fuel in the forest floor, even in the places where trees were not blown down (Fig. 2), which implies an increase in the chance for a surface fire of high intensity during the next dry season. That is, this seems an opportunity to study the interaction between these two disturbances, fire and hurricanes.

Pinus dauglasianaFig. 1. Pinus dauglasiana forest after a fire (see the seedling regeneration) followed by an hurricane.

Pinus dauglasiana 2Fig. 2. The forest floor of the Pinus dauglasiana forest (unburned) has greatly increased the fuel after the hurricane even in the places where trees were not blown down; the whole forest has a carpet of recently fallen branches and leaves.

The answer is blowing in the wind

October 23rd, 2009 No comments

Fire management is facing two extreme views (see a discussion and references in PDF):

  • Large fires are controlled by fuel, and are the consequence of the fire suppression policy (build-up of fuels). Thus to reduce fire danger, fuel control is needed (the patch mosaic model)
  • Large fires are controlled by climate (mainly severe droughts) and thus fuel management is of little relevance

A recent paper is conclusive in that in California, large chaparral fires are controlled by climate and they burn through a vegetation mosaic of differetn ages since fire, and thus in landscapes under severe weather conditions there is little hope fuel treatments will provide barriers to fire spread. Strong dry winds, Santa Ana winds, are driving many of the large chaparral fires (Figure below).

Keeley, J.E. and P.H. Zedler. 2009. Large, high intensity fire events in southern California shrublands: debunking the fine-grained age-patch model. Ecological Applications 19:69-94. [journal] [pdf] [brief for managers]


Santa Ana wind-driven fires (MODIS, 26 Oct 2003)

Fires in the Mediterranean basin: The question is weather these results also apply to other Mediterranean regions. The role of droughts in recent fires (e.g., see the 2007 European heat wave and the consequences on large fires in Greece and Croatia; Figures below) and the importance of dry winds in many fires (e.g., ponientes in eastern Spain) suggest that a similar process may be occurring in the Mediterranean basin, although due to the long and intense land use in this area, fuel structure may also need to be considered for understanding some past fire regime changes [pdf].

Temperature anomalies in Europe, summer 2007

Fires in Greece, summer 2007
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