Blazes have scorched millions of acres of land in California, so a Jackson State University meteorologist is teaming up with other experts to prevent more deadly wildfires that threaten to turn the Golden State into a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
“It’s not usually the weather that causes the fire,” said Dr. Loren D. White, an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry, Physics and Atmospheric Sciences of JSU’s College of Science, Engineering the Technology. Rather, White said, “Most of the fires in California, and in that area, are started by human interaction in some way – power lines, vehicles, arsons, etc.”
However, White blames an environmental condition known as sundowner winds for making wildfires difficult to tame on the central coast of California and, especially, around Santa Barbara. He points to strong winds and low humidity.
White said, “One of the unique things about sundowner winds is that they are much more dependent on a certain time of the day, which is how it got its name. They’re similar to Santa Ana winds, except that Santa Ana winds can blow all daylong for days on end. Whereas, the sundowner winds occur primarily around sunset. That’s when they become the strongest and intensify in the evening.”
In some parts of the country, like Arizona, most fires are started by lightning. However, lightning is not the primary culprit on California’s central coast, White said. Instead, he blames sundowner winds and Santa Ana winds. “Usually when you don’t have any thunderstorms it’s very dry on the central coast. If there is any precipitation, typically, it won’t include a thunderstorm.”
He also said changes in the landscape appear to make some areas more susceptible to fire. Studies are underway, too, into how forests are managed and the impact of encroachment and infrastructure on neighborhoods and remote areas.
Moreover, he said, the weather causing the sundowner winds is partly forced by large-scale high-pressure systems, and it’s unclear if such a system is significantly different than from 50 to 100 years ago.
“There’s no way to take out whatever is going on in the climate. For about a 10-year period, much of California was in a severe drought. When the state recovered from that drought a couple years ago it didn’t immediately make things better. That’s because after it got wet again you had a lot more growth. Then later, drier conditions resulted in more fuel to burn,” White added. Although he did not discuss climate change in detail, White said it’s a “whole other problem to try to factor out.”
Meanwhile, JSU is partnering with universities and meteorology programs throughout the country. The University of California-Santa Barbara is the lead, with San Jose State University hailed as a foremost center in the world for fire meteorology. White said JSU’s role is to monitor weather conditions from a mobile platform. Other teams are also examining mountains, valleys and inland territories. Aircraft, weather balloons and weather stations will conduct research, too.
White said, “I’ll be driving mainly on the mountaintop collecting data where you don’t have any weather stations because of terrain and obstructions.” He said the University of Virginia will do something similar at a lower elevation. “We’re trying to look at the interactions between what’s going on with the coastline, where you have relatively moist conditions.”
Eventually, others from JSU will join White. He said there’s limited funding to involve JSU student researchers, who will help launch weather balloons in May.