Jorge L. Ortiz, USA TODAY
Published 6:07 p.m. ET Sept. 8, 2019
Renewed winds are presenting challenges for crews battling a stubborn wildfire near a Southern California neighborhood. The fire that broke out Wednesday on rural land in Riverside County grew to more than 2 square miles. (Sept. 6)
Hurricane Dorian’s pernicious path from the Bahamas to Canada provided yet another reminder of the damaging force of wind in storms.
Less known but just as impactful is the role wind plays in wildfires.
Forecasts of strong winds in Southern California this week have heightened concerns that the state’s fire season, tame in its early stages compared to the devastation of last year, could swing into destructive, even deadly mode.
Sustained winds of 20-30 mph with gusts up to 50 mph are expected in parts of Southern California through Tuesday, increasing the fire danger in an area that has been ravaged by blazes in recent years.
“We have a strong high pressure off the coast,’’ AccuWeather meteorologist Jake Sojda said, “and just the way that’s oriented, we’re going to get strong Sundowner winds through some of the north-south-oriented valleys in Santa Barbara, Ventura counties and even really through all the mountains there along the coast, even down to San Diego.’’
Not only does the wind fuel fires with extra oxygen, but it dries vegetation and makes it more combustible. In addition, the wind makes fires more unpredictable and harder to contain, affecting the speed at which they move.
The website for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection shows no major blazes in the areas Sojda mentioned to USA TODAY, with the biggest being the Tenaja Fire in Riverside County, which as of Sunday morning had burned 1,940 acres and was 56% contained.
But in the last two years alone, Ventura County has been torched by two major infernos, the Woolsey and Thomas fires, the latter also burning large portions of Santa Barbara County. Both are among California’s 10 most destructive fires ever.
An unusually wet winter, late-spring precipitation and summer temperatures across the West that were 2-7 degrees below normal contributed to a slower start to the fire season than last year.
Through Sept. 1, 2018, Cal Fire had recorded 4,241 events and 622,654 burnt acres. The 2019 numbers are down markedly, to 3,757 and 28,183.
It’s too soon to celebrate, though. The monthly predictive report from the National Interagency Fire Center, released Sept. 1, noted that California was among the handful of states that received less than 25% of its average rain total for August.
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Warmer and drier conditions than usual are expected for this month and possibly into the fall. And while the center anticipates fire activity to diminish in Northern California in October, the southern part of the state may not be out of the woods until December.
“It’s pretty early to make a judgment on what the fire season is going to hold, especially since just exactly where the fires develop and where they move has a huge impact on how the season is perceived,’’ Sojda said. “You can have huge fires up in the Sierra that don’t really impact anybody and nobody notices very much. Whereas, if it’s a smaller fire but it’s in populated areas, that’s a disaster.’’
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