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What's Causing the Fires in Northern California?

UPDATED 6 AM PDT, June 30, 2008

By WeatherBug Meteorologist, Andrew Rosenthal

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For more than a week, northern California has been inundated by massive wildfires, sending billowing smoke throughout the Golden State's valleys. What caused these fires, and is there relief from nature in the offing?

WeatherBug Meteorologist Rachel Peterson explains the causes of the California Wildfires in this exclusive WeatherBug Video.

The primary cause of the wildfires is a drought impacting the West that has been ongoing for several years. Below-average water years have become typical from Washington to California, and North Dakota to New Mexico.

Changes in weather patterns did treat much of the West Coast to above-average precipitation totals this past winter; however, northern California largely missed out on these storms. Many storms went well north into the Pacific Northwest, bringing one of the snowiest winters on record to the Washington and Oregon Cascades. Other storms targeted the central and southern Sierra Nevada, such as a series of storms in early-to-mid January that brought more than 100 inches of snow.

According to National Weather Service, Redding, Calif., only saw above-normal rainfall one month this past winter, in January. Rainfall totaled 9.98 inches of rain, about an inch above the normal amount. However, rainfall during November, December, February and March was well below normal. Red Bluff, Calif., produces similar results: January was the only rainy month in an otherwise dry winter.

The second ingredient at work is a lack of rainfall over the past month. Redding has seen 0.02 inches of rain since May 24, when a strong storm brought about a half-inch of rain to the Sacramento Valley. Red Bluff has had no measureable rainfall since May 26. As a result of this dry weather, streams across the Napa Valley and north-central California are running low, and the ground is unusually parched.

In recent weeks, northern California has seen some storms. This has provided the third and final ingredient to spark the fires. Summertime thunderstorms developing along the Coastal Range and southern Cascades two weeks ago produced plenty of lightning but little rainfall. Lightning struck dry and parched trees, which sparked numerous wildfires.

High pressure holding strong across the Intermountain West have produced hot and dry weather, perfect conditions to maintain the fiery conditions. Northerly breezes also helped to push the smoke from the fires down through the Central Valley, into the network of rivers and canals between the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, and down the San Joaquin Valley.

Immediate relief does not appear to be near for the fire-stricken region. Northern California is currently in their dry season, so significant rainfall is not expected. The area of high pressure currently across the West is not forecast to move much this week, keeping dry conditions in place.

Be sure to check your WeatherBug for the latest on the fires and the smoky conditions, and keep it active for the latest watches, warnings, and advisories in your area.

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