Heatwaves Amplify Wildfire Danger
June 25, 2021
Hot Take: It’s Hot
Over the past week, the Western United States has been blasted by an historic heatwave. Temperatures broke record highs in hundreds of communities, Death Valley (the hottest place in the US) recorded 130°, 40 million Americans endured temperatures over 100 degrees…and it’s only June.
A number of factors have contributed to the conditions that made these extreme temperatures possible: first, a large high-pressure system settled over the American Southwest, pushing southerly hot, dry air down into the already arid region. High-pressure systems occur constantly, and usually move in flux with their low-pressure counterparts. This system overstayed its welcome by several days due to a bend in the jet stream, the fast-moving air currents that transport weather across the continent from West to East. Jet streams form when warm air masses meet cold air masses in the atmosphere; as the poles warm, less cool air is available to counter the hot air from the equator, and bends in the jet stream occur. With the bend, the high-pressure system over the Southwest was too large for the surrounding low-pressure systems to move in, prolonging the hot and dry conditions that have already lead to energy shortages and record high temperatures.
Heatwaves have always been a part of the American climate, but their frequency and length is increasing. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, major US cities experienced an average of two heatwaves per year in the 1960s. In the 2010s, that number has increased to six or more heatwaves per year, and the average heat wave season is forty-seven days longer than it was in the ’60s [source].
A two-decade-long dry-spell is contributing to the heat as well: normally a portion of the sun’s energy is spent evaporating the moisture in the soil, but the ground is so dry that the energy is spent warming the air instead.
Building details, architectural detailing, landscaping choices and even road design can help protect your home from wildfire damage.
As of June 22nd, some of the heat has dispersed as a few low-pressure systems managed to encroach on the high-pressure dome, but forecasts are dire with temperatures returning to the 100s in much of the region over the weekend. A stronger respite will eventually arrive in the form of the Southwest’s “monsoon season”, when the summer winds blow out of the south, carrying moisture up from the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. Combined with the Southwest’s bright sun, these phenomena result in storms and heavy rainfall that cool the air and ground as they pass through. Monsoon season runs from June 15th to September 1st, so the relief it promises is already later than expected; combined with the fact that 2020’s monsoon was the driest in recorded history, it looks like it’ll be one hot summer.
The Wildfire Connection
It seems self-explanatory that “hotter temperatures lead to more fires”, but the increased risk of wildfire is actually more nuanced. The heat wave comes on top of a particularly brutal drought in the Western states: 55% of the region is experiencing “extreme” to “exceptional” levels of dryness. Combination hot/dry weather create perfect tinder-box conditions, and these dangerous overlaps of heat and dryness are occurring with more and more frequency due to climate change [source]. In the last 30 years, wildfires went from an occasional concern to an entire season of danger.
Rapid development of natural areas is also increasing wildfire risk: as more companies embrace remote-work options, more and more people are moving out of cities and into natural areas [source]. This movement increases the amount of land classified as “wildland–urban interface”, a zone of transition between wilderness and land developed by human activity. Rapid growth of the WUI greatly increases risk of wildfire in several ways: the proximity of humans results in more ignitions, wildfires pose higher risk and are harder to fight, and proximity of human development makes it impossible to let wildfires burn out naturally [source].
Hot/dry conditions also create the perfect condition for nature’s most prolific firebug: dry lightning. This phenomenon occurs when storms form high in the atmosphere over especially arid land. The rain falls as you’d expect, but the air is so dry that the water evaporates before it hits the ground, resulting in plenty of thunder and lightning with minimal hydration. This combination is especially frequent in the western states, and with record heat and drought, we can expect an even higher occurrence of these storms.
Credit: The Government of Alberta (via NASA.gov)
The most important thing you can do to avoid wildfire-based loss of life and property is to have a plan. Ready.gov and CAL Fire both have extensive guides online, but take some time to make sure your plan is customized to your unique situation: mark out multiple evacuation routes in case of closures, have emergency procedures in place for pets and any livestock, and keep a detailed and up-to-date inventory of your valuables on file and with your insurance company. Wildfires can travel miles in just minutes, so have make sure your family has a go-bag prepared and customized to your specific needs and that you always have a vehicle with enough fuel to travel double the distance of your escape route.
For direct prevention, remember Smoky the Bear and be fire-safe this summer. Keep a close eye on garbage fires and campfires, and thoroughly douse any open flames when you leave an area. Check your outdoor wiring for any fraying, and never leave a flame unattended, outdoors OR indoors. Dispose of all cigarette butts and ashes in approved bins; never toss them out a car window. Even the smallest errant spark can start a devastating blaze.
For long-term prevention, look into making changes to your property. Building details, architectural detailing, landscaping choices and even road design can help protect your home from wildfire damage. These changes may seem expensive or unnecessary, but with the increasing risk of wildfire, they’ve already been proved more than worth the price: in 2018, Phillip Vogt’s house was the only one in his Malibu neighborhood to survive the Woolsey fire completely intact. His survival is due to the fire-safe details he implemented during construction; the concrete walls, ember guards, and 50,000 gallon tank of water that he installed saved his home — and his life [source].
Chartwell Can Help
As wildfire danger continues to increase across the country, we at Chartwell Insurance Services urge any client in an at-risk area to contact us for an accurate assessment of their exposure to wildfire danger. With our industry experience and contacts, we can help formulate a risk management and evacuation strategy in partnership with our insurers to better protect our clients and their loved ones. Clients effected by the current heat wave should also consider speaking with your homeowners or neighborhood association, community leaders, fire department, or the local representative for the National Forest Service as well to see what measures are being implemented and available in your community. Wildfires are notoriously unpredictable; as rising temperatures, drought, and human development increase their danger and frequency, remember that past experiences are not a guarantee of future outcomes.
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