California Burning: Why the Carr Wildfire Is a Whopper


A burned out classic car sits next to a home that was destroyed by the Carr fire on July 27, 2018 in Redding, California. To date, more than 115,000 acres have been destroyed by the flames. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The size and scope of the Carr fire near Redding, California — officials in Northern California call it the Carr Fire Incident — are simply, to use an absolutely inadequate word, staggering.

More than 115,000 acres (46,538 hectares) have been scorched in the fire that began on July 23, 2018. (It's still only 35 percent contained as we step into August.) The Carr fire is now the sixth largest in California's well-documented and unfortunately disaster-rich history.

To wrap your head around exactly how much 115,000 acres is: It's more than 179 square miles (463 square kilometers); think of a square that goes out 13 miles (21 kilometers), then turns right for another 13 miles (21 kilometers). It's bigger than everything in that square. It's bigger than the cities of Tampa or Denver or Seattle. It's bigger than Portland or Detroit or Atlanta. This fire is more than twice the size of the city of Cleveland.

The Carr conflagration — one of more than a dozen currently raging in California — is so big it creates its own type of cloud, similar to the ones seen from volcanic eruptions.

"I have been out there. The areas that I've been in are somewhat ... it puts you in awe, the destruction," says Jude Olivas of the Newport Beach Fire Department, serving as a public information officer for the Carr Incident. "It's just devastating."

Craig Clements is a professor in the department of meteorology and climate science at San Jose State University. He specializes in, among other areas, the micro-meteorology and behavior of wildland fires.

Sky-high Flames

He and his team were at the Carr fire last weekend taking smoke measurements and helping in other research. Clements has been studying fires for years. People, he agrees, just don't get how big these things are.

"Some of these fires are burning over a course of weeks. Some of these fires are burning 50,000 acres [20,234 hectares] in a night. So, that's like the size of some cities or towns. They're huge," Clements says.

And the destruction they cause ...

"I like to use a campfire ... imagine a campfire. If you're sitting around a campfire at night and you're trying to warm yourself, you're using the radiation from the flames to sit about 3 or 4 feet [.9 or 1.2 meters] away from the fire. If you were to put your hand over the fire, you'd burn it," Clements says.

"Well, imagine that fire being 50 feet [15 meters] tall. Right? You could feel that from hundreds of feet away. The convective gas goes all the way into the stratosphere, it's so hot. So imagine a wall of flames that tall — some of these are 100 feet [30 meters] tall — moving through the environment."

And there you have the Carr Incident.

Anatomy of the Fire

The investigation into the origins of the Carr fire, about 216 miles (347 kilometers) north of San Francisco, is ongoing. Fire inspectors know only that it began because of the "mechanical failure of a vehicle." That could mean, Olivas says, just about anything — sparks from the rim of a wheel hitting the road due to a flat tire. Overheated exhaust. Hot oil. Sparks from an engine.

Whatever it was, once the thing flared, conditions combined to spread the fire quickly.

Thick underbrush from years of drought and inadequate forest management make the area ripe for fire. Wind ripping through gaps in the mountains fan the flames and carry embers for miles. Trees — even the living ones — are thick and dry and ready for burning.

The problems multiply, of course, when people live nearby. Even in remote Northern California, people have been caught, tragically, in the middle of an inferno.

"What we're not used to is the wildland-urban interface, and the fires that are burning into the housing developments ... we're not used to that," Clements says. "In Redding, it's really kind of wild there. People go up there to fish. There's lots of rivers, and forests. It's a beautiful area. But you got a lot of people up in those forested areas. And it's pretty scary."

More than 1,000 residential structures — including more than 800 homes, worth more than $300 million — have been destroyed since the fire broke out on July 23. More than 2,500 structures remain threatened.

At least six people have died in the blaze, too, including two firefighters and three members of the same family — a great-grandmother and her two great-grandchildren.

Cal Fire firefighters battle the Carr fire as it burns along highway 299 on July 27, 2018 near Whiskeytown, California.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Fighting a Wildfire

According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, more than 4,000 firefighters from throughout the state and beyond are battling the blaze — sometimes on days when the temperatures exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37 degrees Celsius) without the fire — using 366 fire engines, 84 water "tenders," 17 helicopters, 119 bulldozers and "numerous" air tankers. More than 150 engines have arrived from across the U.S. to chip in, according to Olivas.

This fire is a difficult one to tackle for several reasons. The mountains in the area make it particularly tricky.

"The terrain is just awful and difficult to access, it's just inaccessible in a lot of areas," Dominic Polito, a spokesman for fire authorities, told the Los Angeles Times. "If you were to walk up it, you'd be looking at your knee on every step."

Another challenge: Firefighters are shooting at a literally moving target.

"Things can change so rapidly. The weather, the fuel, the topography. All of that. You look at the humidity that day. The sun, how much moisture is in the air," Olivas says. "All those different things affect the fire."

For now, firefighters will continue to battle and hope for help from the weather; cooler temperatures, perhaps, calmer winds and a little rain. That doesn't look good, though. No rain is in the immediate forecast, and by next week the temperatures in the area could reach well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37 degrees Celsius), drying out an already parched landscape.

"California's ecosystem and climate is such that rain doesn't fall, basically, from May 1 to, say, Oct. 1," Clements says. "And climate change is shifting the fire season, making it dry out earlier and extending it."

With thousands of acres already lost and thousands more threatened, the plan to deal with the Carr fire now is simple: Keep people safe, keep the fire contained and hope for a break. Soon.


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