Heatwaves sapping soil of moisture, increasing wildfire danger scientists say

·2 min read
Flames tower over an emergency vehicle near Oroville, California during the Bear Fire in 2020.
Flames tower over an emergency vehicle near Oroville, California during the Bear Fire in 2020.

SAN JOSE, Calif. - Inside a top-floor office in San Jose State’s Duncan Hall, Dr. Craig Clements combs over a table full of technology. The items range from coils to wires to sensors, and all are tools of his trade, in the pursuit of better understanding the origins of wildfires.

"Yeah, we’re basically ready to deploy to a wildfire incident, because of this heatwave," he said.

Sensors propositioned around the state and nation paint an ominous, orange picture once the data is displayed on a computer screen. California’s ongoing searing heat is not only pushing the mercury up, but it’s also sapping the soil of moisture. Computer models can detail how great the danger is of wildfire.

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Dry farm in Oklahoma
Parched conditions on an Oklahoma farm.

"Part of that model actually predicts the fuel dryness from weather conditions. And that’s over the whole U.S. And so we use that here in California, under a very high resolution to be able to look at how dry the fuels are getting because of the heat," said Dr. Clements.

Researchers have tools in the air, using inferred cameras mounted aboard a National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration plane, and on the front lines of flames, with the schools own mobile radar unit. Clements and his team of five, tenure-tracked professors are studying conditions that cause fires, and then the mercurial nature of the large flames. They want to know how and why the flames move in certain ways, and who’s most at risk.

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Kern County Fire Captain Bruce Wells uses a hose line to keep fire from burning up a tree as the wildfire burns closer to homes during the French Fire in the Sequoia National Forest near Wofford Heights, California on August 25, 2021.
Kern County Fire Captain Bruce Wells uses a hose line to keep fire from burning up a tree as the wildfire burns closer to homes during the French Fire in the Sequoia National Forest near Wofford Heights, California on August 25, 2021.

"The dryer conditions get, the easier it is for fires to ignite," Dr. Clements said. "The risk of large fires breaking out is gonna go up, so we have to be on the lookout this weekend."

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San Jose state’s Wildfire Research Center recently received roughly $6 million in additional funding. Much of that money came from the state. Clements believed he’ll be able to expand his program to better aid firefighters when heatwaves serve as a precursor to potential fire disaster.