Fire weather worsens as heatwave spreads across US south this week

“We expect higher-than-normal temperatures and what that means for the fires are generally unstable conditions,” Todd Shoemake, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s (NWS) office in Albuquerque, New Mexico, told CNN. “So if you start to see fire growing, it can often become quite explosive and quickly gain energy and heat.”

A high-pressure ridge will build up in the southwest this weekend, allowing record heat to set in.

High temperatures will reach the 90s and triple digits, which will pose a threat to anyone outdoors for long periods of time.

The cities of Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Roswell, New Mexico, have the potential to break or break records this weekend and early next week, making weather conditions at the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak wildfire even more dire.

The largest fire in New Mexico state history (the 2012 Whitewater Baldy Fire) burned 297,845 acres. The Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire has already burned over 270,000 acres and could surpass the number one fire in the next few days as it is only 29% contained.

Makoto Moore, an incident meteorologist (IMET) at the NWS office in Pueblo, Colorado, is at the site of the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire.

IMETs provide on-site weather support and products to ground crews, including firefighters, needed to complete their mission.

“I’m primarily there for firefighter safety because I provide security weather surveillance throughout the shift, monitoring radar, satellite and observations to eliminate any weather-related surprises for everyone working in the field,” Moore explained.

“If thunderstorms develop over or near the fire, I will send a weather alert for lightning, hail, etc. to crews via radio. I will also alert for thunderstorm outflows that can alter the speed and direction of the fire’s spread.”

One thing that can help firefighters increase containment is the wind forecast, which is designed to remain relatively light across the region for the next 24 hours.

“A ridge of high pressure over the area this weekend should allow for a general relaxation of winds, although it will also bring high temperatures to near-record levels,” Moore told CNN.

However, light winds are not always a good thing because they can cause plume-dominated fire activity, also known as “plume collapse”.

“Plume collapses occur when the heat generated at the surface by fire is no longer sufficient to maintain an updraft,” Moore said. “It could be because of the fire running out of fuel, or shading from solar insolation, or any other reason, but the energy at the surface is cut off and the column collapses due to its own weight and gravity.”

Insolation is a measure of the solar energy in a specific area in a given period of time.

This satellite image shows a view of the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire near Las Vegas, New Mexico, on May 11, 2022.
It is not uncommon with fires and is not usually a significant concern. However, it becomes a big problem if a pyrocumulus cloud forms.

With enough energy and moisture available, the clouds can turn into a storm at the top of the column of smoke and fire.

“This storm will produce all the hazards of a normal storm: lightning, blustery and erratic winds, precipitation, etc., except that much or all of the activity is hidden by the smoke column,” Moore said. “Firefighters on land can have very little warning before strong gusts of wind sweep through an area.”

Meteorologists have signals they can look for to predict such events, including monitoring satellite and radar imagery.

“As for predicting such a thing, we’ve gotten pretty good at predicting wind speeds, and if lighter winds are predicted for an intensely active fire, we know there’s a good chance that strong vertically developing plumes of smoke are a possibility.” , said Moore. .

Moore pointed out that possible column collapses will need to be watched this weekend.

Winds will begin to pick up, however, and will change rapidly as a cold front reaches New Mexico on Monday morning.

“This front will do a few things,” warned the NWS office in Albuquerque on Saturday. “First, it can get to the Rio Grande Valley for a 20 to 30 mph wind event. Second, it will increase the dew points for central/eastern New Mexico.”

This increase in humidity appears to be a good thing, but in reality it is enough instability for thunderstorms to develop.

“In the end, given the humidity profiles, there will likely be a few isolated storms that could produce some lightning and gusts of downwind,” the NWS office in Albuquerque said.

Strong winds can quickly spread any ongoing fires and lightning can trigger new fires.

Unfortunately, the storms will not necessarily bring the heavy rain that the region desperately needs, not just because of the fires but also because of the persistent drought.

“The level of drought that the Desert Southwest is currently in will require more than a rainy day, a rainy week or even a rainy year to significantly improve conditions,” said Jenn Varian, a meteorologist in the NWS office. in Las Vegas.

Increased cloud cover and higher humidity levels will still allow firefighters an opportunity to increase containment numbers, but not for long.

“Another low pressure long wave valley developing in the western third of the country means the desert southwest could be entering another hot dry spell with strong sustained winds starting Thursday and lasting through next weekend.” , explained Moore.

The heat also drains firefighters who wear layers of thick protective clothing in extreme temperatures.

“Higher temperatures mean higher rates of dehydration and highlight the need for teams to drink more water to stay safe,” Moore said.

Extreme heat resulting in record energy demands

More than 200 daily record temperatures are predicted to be challenged over the next 7 days from southwest to east coast midweek.

In Texas, this prolonged heat wave caused six power generation facilities to shut down, resulting in a loss of electricity, according to a statement released by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT).

“We’re asking Texans to save energy when they can by setting their thermostats to 78 degrees or above and avoiding using large appliances (such as dishwashers, washers and dryers) during peak hours between 3pm and 8pm over the weekend. “ERCOT interim CEO Brad Jones said in a statement on Friday.

Some areas of Texas can break daily record high temperatures every day for at least the next seven days.

Several dozen cities from Arizona to the Carolinas are expected to break record high temperatures this weekend.

On Sunday, Roswell in New Mexico and Midland and Odessa in Texas will see high temperatures reach triple digits, staying there until at least Thursday.

For much of East Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana, the concern is not just the temperatures themselves, but the extended period of time the heat will remain.

Even places known to be hot are hotter than usual. Phoenix and Tucson are expected to hit 105 degrees on Sunday. Their daily high temperature records are 107 degrees and 104 degrees respectively.

Check the forecast to see how hot it will be where you live.

Las Vegas may not be expecting record temperatures, but the accelerating rise in temperatures is worrying.

Last week, temperatures in Las Vegas were about 20 degrees below normal. Wednesday reached just 69 degrees, compared to the average high temperature of 87 degrees.

“Because of the rapid warming of around 10 degrees a day, this prevents locals and tourists from getting used to the hot temperatures, and unless they are paying close attention to the forecast, it could catch them off guard when recreating outdoors this weekend. week.” Varian said.

CNN meteorologist Haley Brink contributed to this story.

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