Fire weather worsens as heat wave sweeps across southern US this week

“We’re expecting temperatures above normal and what that means for fires is generally unstable conditions,” Todd Shoemake, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service (NWS) office in Albuquerque, New Mexico, told CNN. “So if you start to see fire growth, a lot of times it can get quite explosive and gain energy and heat very quickly.”

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

High temperatures will soar into the 90s and triple digits, posing a threat to those outdoors for long periods of time.

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

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

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

IMETs provide on-site weather support and products to on-the-ground teams, including firefighters, necessary to complete their mission.

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

“If thunderstorms develop on or near the fire, I will send a weather alert for lightning, hail, etc. to crews via radio. I will also alert for storm winds that could alter the speed and direction of fire spread.”

One thing that could help firefighters increase containment is the wind forecast, which is forecast 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 easing of the winds, while also driving high temperatures to near-record levels,” Moore told CNN.

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

“Plume collapse occurs when the heat generated at the surface by the fire is no longer sufficient to maintain an updraft,” Moore said. “It could be because the fire ran out of fuel, was shadowed by solar insolation, or any number of reasons, but the energy at the surface is cut off and the plume collapses due to its own weight and gravity.”

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

It is not uncommon with fires and is usually not a major concern. However, it becomes a big problem if a pyrocumulus cloud forms.

With enough energy and moisture available, the clouds can become a thunderstorm above the plume of smoke and fire.

“This thunderstorm will produce all the hazards of a normal thunderstorm: lightning, erratic wind gusts, precipitation, etc., except that much or all of the activity is hidden by the plume of smoke,” Moore said. “Firefighters on the ground may have very little warning before strong gusts of wind hit an area.”

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

“As far as predicting such a thing, we’ve gotten pretty good at predicting wind speed and if lighter winds are forecast for an intensely active fire, we know there’s a good chance there will be strong vertically developed plumes of smoke,” Moore said. .

Moore noted that potential column collapses will need to be watched this weekend.

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

“This front will do a couple of things,” the NWS office in Albuquerque warned Saturday. “First, it may hit the Rio Grande Valley for a gap wind event with wind speeds of 20 to 30 mph. Second, it will increase dew points for central/eastern New Mexico.”

This increase in humidity sounds like a good thing, but it’s actually enough instability for thunderstorms to develop.

“In the end, given the moisture profiles, there will most likely be a few isolated thunderstorms that could produce some lightning and wind gusts,” the NWS office in Albuquerque said.

Strong winds could quickly spread any ongoing fires, and lightning could start new fires.

Unfortunately, the storms will not necessarily bring the heavy rains that the area desperately needs, not only because of the fires, but also because of the persistent drought.

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

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

“Another long-wave low pressure depression developing over the western third of the country means the desert southwest may be entering another hot, dry spell with sustained strong winds starting Thursday and into next weekend,” Moore explained.

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

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

Extreme heat resulting in record power demands

More than 200 daily record high temperatures are forecast to be challenged over the next 7 days from the Southwest to the East Coast by mid-week.

In Texas, this prolonged heat wave has caused six power generation facilities to go offline, resulting in a loss of electricity, according to a statement issued 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 higher and avoiding the use of large appliances (such as dishwashers, washers and dryers) during peak hours between 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. over the weekend. ERCOT Acting Executive Director Brad Jones said in a statement Friday.

Some areas of Texas could break daily high temperature records every day for at least the next seven days.

Several dozen cities, from Arizona to the Carolinas, are expected to break high temperature records this weekend.

On Sunday, Roswell in New Mexico and Midland and Odessa in Texas will see high temperatures climb into the 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 stick around.

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

Check the weather 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 concerning.

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

“Because of the rapid warming of about 10 degrees per day, this prevents both residents and tourists from acclimatizing to the high temperatures and, unless they pay close attention to the weather forecast, can take them by surprise when having fun outdoors. this weekend”. Varian said.

CNN Meteorologist Haley Brink contributed to this story.

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