The science behind California's surging wildfires

As three major fires blaze in California, we consider some of their causes, both human and meteorological. Science correspondent Miles O’Brien has been filming a NOVA documentary on megafires and witnessed the Camp Fire not long after it began. He joins William Brangham to describe that stunning experience, along with the broader scientific context around these destructive phenomena.


Judy Woodruff:

As we have been reporting, California residents are now realizing that deadly, destructive fires can start any time of the year.

William Brangham is back with more on what is driving this new dangerous condition.

William Brangham:

That's right, Judy.

As we reported before, three major fires are causing havoc in California, including the most deadly and destructive in the state's history, the Camp Fire, which is still burning in Northern California.

Over the past six months, our science correspondent, Miles O'Brien, has been shooting a film about wildfires for the PBS science series "NOVA." It's called "Inside the Megafire," and it will air next spring on PBS.

This past week, Miles was there in California filming just as the Camp Fire broke out. And he joins me now.

Miles, it's great to see you safe and sound.

But I'm just curious what that was like, when you're there on the ground when that enormous blaze broke out.

Miles O’Brien:

Well, William, our day began in Redding, California. We were there to interview some survivors of the Carr Fire back in July.

And on Thursday about 6:00 in the morning, we got word that there was a fire in Pulga, California, about 100 miles away. We had no idea what we were going to be getting into. We made our way down, and we approached on the northern side of the fire on the unincorporated settlement of Magalia.

And, William, there was fire everywhere, houses on fire, trees on fire, smoke everywhere, very few first-responders. But even if there were, it was a reminder that there was no humanly possible way to stop what was happening.

It was terrifying. It was horrifying. It was, frankly, mesmerizing.

William Brangham:

I know that, by all accounts, this was a truly extraordinary event. I believe it burned 80 acres a minute at the very beginning. It's now consumed — I think it's over 100,000 acres have been burned.

This — I guess the technical term for this is a megafire, and my understanding is, we're seeing more of these events. Why is that?

Miles O’Brien:

Well, megafires are much more common than they have been.

Just to give you an idea, the seven largest fires in California history have occurred since 2003. So, this is a growing trend. We were meeting up with a fire meteorologist from San Jose State University, Craig Clements.

He and a team have a truck that's rigged up with all kinds of meteorological gear, including a LIDAR system, which is basically radar with light. He points it at the plume of the smoke. And he's able to see through the smoke and determine the wind direction and speed and understand some things about the weather.

Fires create their own weather, and they're also impacted by the ambient weather around them. And this is of great interest to researchers to help them understand how these big fires propagate. They sort of develop a life of their own.

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