TIME

Southern California Blaze Kicks Off What Could Be Especially Dangerous Wildfire Season

A fire crew uses their deck gun to cut down an aggressive branch of the Etiwanda Fire in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., on April 30, 2014.
A fire crew uses their deck gun to cut down an aggressive branch of the Etiwanda Fire in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., on April 30, 2014. David Bro—Zuma Press

Rising temperatures and a prolonged drought have prepped the Golden State for what could become one of the most severe and dangerous wildfire seasons on record, beginning with the Etiwanda Fire that firefighters have about 53 percent contained

As he looks ahead to summer, firefighter Steve Abbott is worried about the down and dead. The term refers to the dry, lifeless leaves and branches that are explosive fuel for wildfires and which are more abundant in California this year thanks to an unprecedented drought that has gripped the state. “The combination of temperatures and fuel adds to our concern,” says Abbott, one of more than 500 firefighters now battling what’s known as the Etiwanda Fire in San Bernardino County east of Los Angeles.

The fire, which started on April 30, has burned about 1,600 acres and was 53 percent contained by Thursday evening. In addition to the drought conditions and temperatures that climbed above 90 in Southern California this week, fierce Santa Ana winds helped propel the blaze and prevented fire crews from fighting it from the air. Although the fire has not yet destroyed any structures, Etiwanda is effectively opening night for a wildfire season that fire officials say could be one of the most severe and dangerous on record—and a preview of what life in a hotter and drier world could be for Californians.

That’s because the Golden State is primed to burn. California is suffering through its most severe dry spell in decades, with the entire state now in some category of drought. At the beginning of May the snowpack level in the Sierra Nevada mountains—a key source of stored water—was just 18% of normal. This winter, meanwhile, was the warmest on record for the state. The drought and the heat mean that plants and trees haven’t grown as many green leaves as usual. Those leaves help trees maintain moisture—and without them, the plants are that much more likely to ignite in a blaze. And it might not even take a fire to kill some of these parched trees. “If you don’t have the vegetation receiving water, not only do you have lower humidity levels in the plants, but some of the trees will actually die,” says Carlos Guerrero, a Glendale, Calif. fire captain and a spokesman for the multi-agency unified command battling the Etiwanda Fire. Dead trees means even more fuel on the ground as the height of the summer wildfire season approaches.

Guerrero and his fellow firefighters are getting the Etiwanda blaze under control—the mandatory evacuation orders announced after the fire began on Apr. 30 were lifted by the next day. But the changing climate means that the threat from wildfires is likely to only increase in the months and the years to come, in California and in much of the rest of the West. A study published last month in the journal Geophysical Research Letters found that the number of large wildfires in the West had increased by a rate of seven fires a year from 1984 to 2011, while the total area had increased at a rate of nearly 90,000 acres a year. Since 2000 more than 8 million acres have burned during six separate years. Before 2000, no year had seen 8 million acres burned. The authors connected the increase to climate change, as did the researchers behind a 2012 study in Ecosphere that predicted that global warming would likely cause more frequent wildfires in the Western U.S. within the next 30 years. Even the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, considered the gold standard for climate science, concluded that there was high confidence that global warming was already intensifying wildfires in the West.

Climate change isn’t the only factor behind the increasing wildfires in California and the West. Successful firefighting in the past has allowed some forests to grow beyond their natural limits, ironically providing more fuel for megafires. And the number of people who have moved to areas that border wild land has increased as well. Given that most wildfires are begun by human beings—either purposefully or by accident—more people near a forest means more chances for forest fires.

For people like Mia Hidayat, who lives in a housing development near the border of the Etiwanda Fire, that means the simple sight of dry brush and bushes in her neighborhood has taken on a new danger. “I’m afraid,” says Hidayat. As California’s wildfire season grows, many others are sure to feel the same.

TIME weather

Monster Storm Brings Record Rainfall to Southeastern U.S.

A truck is stuck in the middle of flooded Piedmont Street in the Cordova Park neighborhood after it washed out due to heavy rains on April 30, 2014 in Pensacola, Fla.
A truck is stuck in the middle of flooded Piedmont Street in the Cordova Park neighborhood after it washed out due to heavy rains on April 30, 2014 in Pensacola, Fla. Marianna Massey—Getty Images

The system that wrought devastating tornados in the Midwest and South over the last few days, leaving at least 35 people dead since Sunday, is unleashing record rainfall further east as forecasts project severe weather up to Virginia

The massive weather system that has wrought devastating tornados in the South unleashed record rainfall across the region overnight Tuesday, with forecasts projecting more severe weather in states from Florida and Alabama to Virginia.

Pensacola, Fla. reportedly suffered more than two feet of rain in a 26-hour period, according to a rain gauge owned by a local resident, as bridges were washed away and miles of highways shut across the region, stranding hundreds of drivers. About 6,000 lightning strikes were recorded in the region in just 15 minutes, NBC reports. Local officials called it the worst flooding the region had seen in 30 years.

Much of downtown Mobile, Ala. was flooded and water levels near Fish River, near Silverhill were at their highest levels in 60 years. Tuesday was Mobile’s fifth-wettest day in 143 years.

Tornado warnings were issues early Wednesday in several states, as the gargantuan weather system brought high winds and thunderstorms across the Deep South. Georgia, Alabama and Florida faced tornado alerts, with forecasters predicting the gravest tornado risks from South Carolina to Virginia.

At least 35 people have been killed in six states since Sunday.

[NBC]

TIME Environment

From ‘Gale’ to ‘Inconceivable,’ Ranking Tornado Strength

Ranking tornado strength
Deadly tornadoes devastated the town of Vilonia, Arkansas on Apr. 27 Mark Wilson/Getty Images

As tornadoes blast across the southeastern U.S., a look at how officials gauge just how powerful a killer twister is

Tornado season began with a crash in the southeastern U.S. this week, where dozens of twisters ripped across Mississippi, Arkansas and Alabama. At least 29 people have died in the storms — and with more tornadoes forecast as the weather system moves further east, that number will almost certainly rise.

It’s the suddenness of tornadoes, as much as their power, that accounts for the lives they take. Meteorologists can forecast when and where storms that can produce tornadoes will appear, but they can rarely give residents more than 15 minutes of warning before a twister touches down. Unlike hurricanes, which meteorologists can now track days in advance with increasing precision, tornadoes remain stubbornly unpredictable, although forecasters at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are working on ways to extend that warning time.

That unpredictability also makes it harder to assess the destructive power of a tornado in real time. Hurricane categories are based on sustained wind speeds in a storm—a Category 1 storm would have sustained winds 74-95 mph (119-153 kph), while a Category 5 storm would have sustained winds of over 157 mph (252 kmh) (“Sustained wind speeds” means the average wind speed in a storm over 10 minutes). The damage a hurricane can cause doesn’t always conform completely to categories. Superstorm Sandy, for instance, wasn’t even a Category 1 hurricane by the time it made landfall in New Jersey, but still caused more than $60 billion in damage, largely due to the size of its storm surge. But more wind generally means more danger—just ask the people of New Orleans, hit by Category 5 Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Tornado strength is assessed on a different and slower scale, after the twisters have struck. When tornadoes occur, National Weather Service (NWS) officials are dispatched to survey the damage. They also reconstruct tornadoes’ life cycles, where they touched down—and how strong they were. Tornadoes are ranked on the Enhanced Fujita (EF) Scale, developed by a Japanese-American meteorologist who, not coincidentally, got his start studying the damage caused by the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. The original Fujita scale was based primarily on the damage a tornado did, with wind speed estimated after the fact. The scale ranked tornadoes from a F0 (Gale) to an F5 (Incredible), with an unofficial F6 category that would require winds in excess of 318 mph and which goes by the name Inconceivable—accurate, since no F6 tornadoes have ever been recorded.

The Enhanced Fujita scale was adopted in 2007. It was designed to more accurately reflect the actual damage a tornado had done on the ground. The EF scale uses 28 different damage indicators, ranging from small barns to hardwood trees to shopping malls—and each of those indicators is assessed based on several different points of possible damage. A shopping mall could range from damage that is just barely visible to complete destruction of some or all of the building. There’s a large database of how strong a tornado needs to be to cause certain kinds of structural damage, so meteorologists are able to use the final damage report to go back and estimate the tornado’s wind speed at the time of touchdown. The categories range from EF0—with three-second wind gusts of 65-85 mph (104-137 kph)—to EF5, with three second gusts over 200 mph (321 kph).

We won’t know the full strength of this week’s multiple tornadoes until NWS surveyors have had a chance to measure the damage on-site. But there has already been a pair of EF3 twisters this year, striking Arkansas and North Carolina on Apr. 27, and those tornadoes may be upgraded as full damage assessments are carried out. 2014 had been shaping up to be a quiet year for tornadoes—Apr. 27 marked the end of a string of 159 days without an EF3 or above tornado, and there had been only 93 tornado reports this year through Apr. 24. That changed this week—there were 87 tornado reports on Apr. 28 alone. And while no tornado that’s hit yet looks to be as strong as the EF5 twister that devastated Moore, Oklahoma last year, the season is far from done.

TIME weather

WATCH: Weatherman Interrupts Live Broadcast to Evacuate Newsroom During Tornado

When a tornado touched down in his studio’s hometown of Tupelo, Mississippi, WTVA Chief Meteorologist Matt Laubhan stayed on his toes and led a newsroom evacuation in the middle of a live broadcast.

“This is a tornado ripping through the city of Tupelo as we speak, and this could be deadly,” Laubhan says in the clip. Then he points to an area off-camera and shouts, “Basement. Now.”

Shortly after the frantic newscast, the station tweeted, “We are safe here.”

Devastating storms have been ravaging the southern U.S. for the past three days. The violent weather has killed more than 30 people, destroyed homes and businesses and left thousands without power. Officials say 11 were killed in Mississippi on Monday alone.

TIME weather

Photos: Tornadoes Tear Through the South

Several tornados have ripped through the south, including Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama, adding additional lives to the death toll

TIME weather

Swarm of Tornadoes Tears Across the South

Constance Lambert embraces her dog after finding it alive when returning to her destroyed home in Tupelo, Miss., April 28, 2014.
Constance Lambert embraces her dog after finding it alive when returning to her destroyed home in Tupelo, Miss., April 28, 2014. Brad Vest—AP

Dozens of twisters across Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee pushed the death toll from this week's storms to at least 35 as the system moves east

Updated 4:58 p.m. ET

At least 16 people were killed Monday as deadly tornadoes ripped through sections of Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee, bringing the death toll for the storm system that hit the Midwest earlier in the week to 35.

The dangerous weather was headed toward Georgia early Tuesday, after having flattened buildings in towns throughout the region, and Governor Nathan Deal has declared a state of emergency.

“For about 30 seconds, it was unbelievable,” said Mississippi state Sen. Giles Ward, whose Louisville home was destroyed in the storm while he huddled in a bathroom with his wife, four kids and dog. “It’s about as awful as anything we’ve gone through.”

The storm system rumbling east across the country has slammed a huge swath of territory with dangerous weather, from Iowa south to Oklahoma and into Arkansas, which alone saw 15 deaths. An estimated 11 tornadoes hit the central U.S. Sunday and 25 ravaged the South Monday, according to a preliminary count from the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center.

The storm reserved its most severe weather for Mississippi and Alabama. At least 45 injuries and six deaths were reported in Winston County, Miss., on Monday. One was a woman who died in the day care center she operated in Louisville, though it remained unclear if there were children in the center when the storm hit.

In Tupelo, Miss., every building in a two-block area was damaged when a tornado ravaged the town of about 35,000. Limestone County, Ala., suffered severe damage in the storm, which knocked out power to nearly 12,000 and killed two when a twister hit a trailer park in the small community of Coxey.

Power was out for tens of thousands of customers in the region and road crews worked to clear debris from streets Tuesday, the Associated Press reports.

[AP]

 

TIME weather

Tornadoes Trample Swath of South, Midwest

A U.S. flag sticks out the window of a damaged hot rod car in a suburban area after a tornado near Vilonia, Arkansas April 28, 2014 Carlo Allegri—Reuters

Dozens of twisters across Mississippi and Alabama pushed the death toll from this week's storms to at least 28 as rescuers search for survivors

Tornadoes have torn through the Deep South in the wake of two days of severe weather in the Midwest, killing nine and bringing the tornado-season death toll so far to at least 27.

At least five tornadoes touched down in Mississippi on Monday evening, claiming seven lives, while authorities in Alabama reported that at least two people were dead in Limestome County in the wake of several powerful spring storm cells. The severe winds have downed trees, leading to local power outages, and reportedly also destroyed a trailer park.

A tornado struck Tupelo, Miss., at around 2:45 p.m. on Monday, causing multiple injuries, the Weather Channel reports, though none were expected to be fatal.

A widespread tornado watch was put into effect across the Midwest and South on Monday night. Ohio, Iowa, Tennessee and parts of Missouri are at risk of severe weather.

The fresh spate of tornadoes comes after 18 were killed across three states on Sunday as a result of severe weather. The worst may not be over yet either: the Weather Channel reports that flooding, heavy rain and thunderstorms are expected to continue into Wednesday.

[Weather Channel]

 

TIME weather

At Least 16 Dead as Tornadoes Cut Through Midwest

Search and rescue teams are scouring the rubble in Arkansas and Oklahoma after the year's worst tornado outbreak yet left at least 16 people dead across three states and caused widespread destruction of property

Updated 1:26 p.m. ET

Tornadoes tore through the American Midwest and South on Sunday, killing at least 18 people in three states—14 in central Arkansas, one in Oklahoma in a cyclone’s wake and one in Iowa.

Authorities are reporting that a tornado touched down 10 miles west of the Arkansas state capital Little Rock, causing widespread devastation in the suburban communities of Mayflower and Vilonia. Authorities initially said 16 people had died in Arkansas but later revised that to 14 because two people were counted twice, the Associated Press reports.

“What I am seeing, it is a lot of damage. I’ve been listening to the rescue folks. They’re saying people have to be extracted from vehicles,” Vilonia Mayor James Firestone told CNN. “It looks pretty bad. From what I understand, there has been a subdivision that’s been leveled.”

The tornado was reportedly on and off the ground for a total of 80 miles, cutting large swaths of destruction to the west and north of Little Rock.

“It sounded like a constant rolling, roaring sound,” Mayflower resident Becky Naylor told the Associated Press. “Trees were really bending, and the light poles were actually shaking and moving. That’s before we shut the door, and we’ve only shut the door to the storm cellar two times.”

Just two hours before the tornado touched down in Arkansas, another cyclone unleashed havoc farther to the west in the tiny town of in Quapaw, Okla., where one resident died and six were injured.

Tornadoes were sighted in Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri throughout Sunday as heavy storm cells ripped across the Great Plains.

Meteorologists are forecasting that severe weather, including tornadoes, hail and heavy winds could continue to pound the Midwest and Southeast throughout the beginning of the week. According to the Weather Channel, conditions are ripe for more tornadoes from east Texas across large swaths of the Plains up into Illinois.

[CNN]

TIME weather

Severe Storms, Tornados Forecast Across Large Swath of U.S.

A storm chaser photographer looks at thunderstorms supercells pass through areas in Vinson, Oklahoma
A storm chaser photographer looks at thunderstorms supercells passing through areas in Vinson, Oklahoma late April 23, 2014. The thunder storms on were a precursor of what's forecast for this coming weekend. Gene Blevins—Reuters

Meteorologists at the National Weather Service issued warnings about severe weather this weekend across Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Texas. Local residents were urged to prepare for hail, thunderstorms and tornadoes

Updated 4:08pm ET

Multiple tornados and severe thunderstorms are forecast this weekend from Nebraska to Texas, in what could be the worst severe weather event of the season so far.

The storms are expected to begin late Saturday and could last into the night before spreading to other areas, according to AccuWeather.com.

Multiple tornados had already touched down in eastern North Carolina by Saturday afternoon, sending 16 people to the emergency room so far and destroying or damaging 200 homes, CBS News reports.

“South-central Kansas to west-central Oklahoma would be in an elevated risk area for severe weather Saturday evening,” meteorologist Scott Breit said. The storms could then move in the direction of Omaha, Neb., Wichita, Kan., Oklahoma City, and Dallas later at night.

Sunday could see more tornados and strong hail lasting into the evening as well, according to National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center. It warned that Saturday’s storms would be severe, but “isolated and scattered.”

The relatively tame severe weather season so far makes the upcoming inclement weather a particular source of worry. “A reason for extra concern this weekend is that tornadoes have been nearly non-existent so far and people tend to forget what they have learned from year to year,” said Accuweather senior vice president Mike Smith.

[AccuWeather.com]

TIME nature

Washington State Mudslide Death Toll Rises to 39

Washington State Communities Continue To Deal With Aftermath Of Massive Mudslide
People hold candles during a vigil for mudslide victims at the Darrington Community Center on April 5, 2014 in Darrington, Wa. David Ryder—Getty Images

The Washington State mudslide has claimed 39 victims, according to the Snohomish County Medical Examiner's Office. Seven people remain missing

The Washington State mudslide has claimed 39 victims, according to the most recent count by the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office.

Agency officials have positively identified 36 of the 39 people killed in the March 22 slide, the Seattle Times reports.

Seven people remain missing after the devastating mudslide struck the small riverside neighborhood of Oso in Snohomish County on March 22.

[Seattle Times]

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