After leaping over California’s Sacramento River, the swiftly-moving Carr Fire entered the City of Redding, home to more than 90,000 people, on Thursday night.
The firestorm melted transmission lines, sent a towering, mushroom-like cloud into the sky, and prompted the evacuation of entire communities in the western part of the city. And two people have already lost their lives while fighting the fire.
“It easily moved across the river,” Brenda Belongie, lead meteorologist of the U.S. Forest Service’s Predictive Services in Northern California, who works and lives in Redding, said in an interview.
“The river is reasonably wide in that location,” Belongie added. “It’s normally a significant barrier — but not when you have that sort of fire.”
Redding sits in a heavily-forested region of the state, a place rife in dry vegetation, like much of parched California. Making matters worse, the National Weather Service predicts temperatures in Redding will hit 110 degrees Fahrenheit on Friday, prompting the service to issue an “excessive heat warning.”
“It is extreme fire behavior — and dramatic — just like you would see in the Hollywood movies, if you will,” said Belongie. “It’s quite the disaster.”
The forests around Redding are particularly fire-prone, as extended periods of warm weather have dried out the grasses and vegetation, turning them to tinder, said Belongie.
The Western U.S., and California specifically, have been besieged by powerful fires this summer, which recently forced the closure of a smoke-filled Yosemite National Park. This follows on the heels of California’s worst fire season on record — in 2017.
This is part of a growing trend, as wildfires now burn substantially more land than they did 30 years ago. Burned forests are now releasing so much fine, burned material into the air that, during the worst events, a vast swathe of the Western U.S. now experiences worsening air quality, while the rest of the nation’s air gradually improves.
Wildfires may be common in the Western U.S. — sparked by lightning, downed power lines, or people acting foolishly — but their acceleration into massive, dominant fires is further stoked by human-caused climate change, say scientists.
Warm air further dries out the land and provides blazes with more fuel, though gusty winds are hugely important contributors — if not the most important factor. Historic mismanagement of forests also play a significant role.
As of Tuesday, the Carr Fire, which started on July 23, had expanded to over 44,000 acres, with barely any containment.
Conditions are ripe for the continued spread of the blaze, as the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) noted that “continued hot, dry weather is forecasted for the remainder of the week with triple digit temperatures.”
Belongie said she has prepared for the worst, if flames, edged on by winds pushing flames over parched land, continue moving through Redding.
“I’m one of the luckier ones, as we got everything important to us out of the house,” she said.
“If it goes, it goes.”