The Slatest

“Mind-boggling” California Wildfire Burns Hundreds of Homes

Burned-out vehicles are surrounded by smoldering rubble from the Valley Fire in Middletown, California on Sept. 13, 2015.

Photo by Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

A disastrous mix of weather conditions, matchstick-dry timber, and a crushing drought led to explosive wildfire growth over the weekend in California.

Even in a year that’s beginning to redefine ordinary when it comes to the effect of a changing climate on wildfires, this fire is an anomaly. From the Los Angeles Times:

Experts said the Valley fire moved faster than any other in California’s recent history. In fewer than 12 hours, it had scorched 40,000 acres.

“There aren’t very many fires in California’s history that have done that. I don’t know if there really is a precedent for it,” said Daniel Swain, climate scientist at Stanford University. “This fire sort of broke the rules even relative to this incredible season that’s already occurred.”

According to state officials, the Valley Fire has now burned several hundred homes and forced thousands to evacuate in communities near Clear Lake, about 100 miles north of the Bay Area. The fire, which began on Saturday, has now burned nearly 100 square miles in little more than a day—an area more than twice the size of the city of San Francisco. The town of Middletown, population 1,300, was particularly hard hit. According to the Los Angeles Times, “entire blocks” were burned to the ground, including the town’s main street.

Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency in the area, which will help provide support for the estimated 3,300 firefighters on the scene and ease the replacement of birth certificates and other documents that affected residents that were unable to salvage. California is currently locked in its hottest and driest four-year stretch on record, and the Valley Fire is exactly the kind of virtually uncontrollable blaze officials have been worrying about.

Even seasoned fire officials were stunned at the fire’s destructiveness, with Cal Fire spokesperson David Shew saying the fire will rank as one of the worst he’s seen in 28 years with the agency. The fire’s glow was easily detectable from space.

For those trying to escape the rapidly expanding blaze, it was a harrowing scene:

The fire moved so fast it was even able to create its own weather. One evacuee captured a fire whirl—essentially a tornado of fire—near a busy highway while fleeing. The fire was able to quickly advance in part because its intense heat was able to enhance the local wind speeds.

More benign weather conditions could help firefighters slow the fire’s advance by midweek, but for the next day or two, breezy winds will likely continue to fan the flames.

Firefighters with the Marin County Fire Department’s Tamalpais Fire Crew battle the Valley Fire on September 13, 2015 near Middletown, California.

Stephen Lam