Winds are gusting above hurricane force in California, driving a new wildfire in the Los Angeles area
By Katie Mettler and Andrew Freedman
October 30 at 11:16 AM ET
Massive wildfires are blazing in Northern and Southern California, ravaging both ends of the state. Take a look at where the fires are. (Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post; William Neff/The Washington Post)
BREAKING: A new fire is rapidly expanding in Southern California as one of the most dangerous Santa Ana wind events “in recent memory” sends humidity plunging into the single digits. The newly kindled Easy Fire, which threatens the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, grew to 407 acres in about 2 hours on Wednesday morning, and any more blazes that ignite are likely to exhibit “extreme behavior,” the Weather Service warns.
This post will be updated.
ORIGINAL STORY: Wildfires continued to burn in Northern and Southern California overnight Tuesday and into Wednesday as officials anxiously monitored the state’s whipping winds, which have the power to breathe dangerous life into the fires and complicate efforts to contain them.
Large swaths of the state remained under “red flag” warnings Wednesday morning — indicating that bone-dry conditions paired with strong winds created large areas at high risk for dangerous wildfires. The Storm Prediction Center warned again of “extremely critical fire weather” throughout Southern California. Parts of Northern California, including the North Bay mountains, were expected to see “widespread critical fire weather conditions.”
The Kincade Fire in the Bay Area has been 30 percent contained, while the Getty Fire burning in Los Angeles was 15 percent contained as of Tuesday night. On Wednesday morning, another fire — dubbed the Easy Fire — broke out in Ventura County, burning through 200 acres and forcing mandatory evacuation orders upon residents in the area surrounding the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley.
The conditions fueling the fires in Southern California have officials especially nervous: The National Weather Service in Oxnard went so far as to issue an “extreme red flag” warning in the Los Angeles area, underscoring just how dangerous the winds could become.
NWS meteorologist Tom Fisher told the Los Angeles Times that the Santa Ana winds could be the worst the region has seen since 2007, when dangerous weather fueled the sixth most destructive fire in California history.
“This is a terribly dangerous moment,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti (D) said Tuesday, as the Getty Fire continued to burn. “We will continue to protect and defend this city with everything that we have.”
Fire crews are battling two main blazes in the state right now.
In the north, the Kincade Fire — this year’s largest wildfire — had grown to 76,825 acres in Sonoma County by Wednesday morning, according to the Cal Fire. At least 206 structures had been destroyed, 94 of them residential. The blaze was 30 percent contained.
Though fire officials prepared to beat back pop-up blazes brought on by expected winds overnight, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the gusts did not come.
“Diablo” winds had been expected to reach 70 mph in Northern California but stayed mostly around 50 mph, the Chronicle reported. The National Weather Service canceled its wind advisory in the area just after 2 a.m. local time.
“We’re not expecting any concern from wind doing any damage now,” Weather Service meteorologist Matt Mehle told the Chronicle. “The red flag warning is still in effect. We’re still seeing widespread lower humidity with all the dry fuel out there, but for now we seem to be done with the wind.”
[What’s driving the historic California high-wind events, and worsening the wildfires]
The winds in Southern California, though, have only gotten worse.
Fire crews there are still trying to contain the Getty Fire, which sparked Monday when a tree branch fell on power lines in Los Angeles County. As of Tuesday evening, the fire, on the western edge of Los Angeles, was 15 percent contained, and officials were bracing for a new wave of Santa Ana winds that could bring 80 mph gusts.
The Getty Fire had consumed about 656 acres as of Tuesday night and forced the evacuation of more than 7,000 homes. At least 12 homes have been destroyed in the blaze, and five others have been damaged, officials said.
The record-strong Santa Ana winds are expected to last through at least Thursday morning.
This Santa Ana wind episode has the potential to be the worst of the season. Coming on the heels of other offshore windstorms, it means that any ignition sources, like a stray cigarette or a sparking power line, would find extremely flammable vegetation that’s ready to burn.
An estimated 18 million Californians live in areas designated as being in “critical” or “extremely critical” fire risk on Wednesday. These are the two most serious risk categories.
Red flag warnings extend from San Francisco north to the California border with Oregon, as wind gusts to 60 mph at times are forecast on Wednesday along with low humidity levels that will make firefighting difficult in this area.
Much of the fire weather concerns on Wednesday through Thursday, however, will center on Southern California, where the National Weather Service took the unprecedented step of issuing an “Extreme Red Flag Warning” to communicate the severity of the event now underway. As of 6 a.m. local time, peak wind gusts in Los Angeles and Ventura counties had reached 65 mph, but the NWS warns that gusts up to 80 mph are possible before about 4 p.m. today.
These winds, combined with humidity levels in the low single digits, and vegetation that has already dried out from previous Santa Ana wind events, are creating an explosive situation in which any fire that ignites could drastically expand in size within a short time period.
“Extreme fire behavior,” such as embers igniting new blazes up to a mile ahead of the fire front, would be possible in such an environment, the NWS office in Los Angeles said.
One of the key factors that forecasters use in predicting the strength of offshore wind events in California is the pressure gradient between coastal portions of the state and areas far inland. The greater the pressure difference, the stronger the winds will be. On Wednesday, forecasters at both the NWS office in Los Angeles and the Storm Prediction Center in Oklahoma, which issues fire threat outlooks, were warning of near-record offshore pressure gradients for October. This is especially significant because October is the month when California sees most of its offshore wind events.
The highest winds are expected in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties, as well as areas to the south, with extremely critical fire weather conditions projected for inland portions of San Diego County as well.
Evacuations have largely gone smoothly as the nation’s most populous state adapts to increasing wildfires that many officials link to climate change.
A parking lot in Santa Rosa, Calif., became the new home for Sonoma County residents fleeing the Kincade Fire. (James Pace-Cornsilk/The Washington Post; Lee Powell/The Washington Post)
Officials in Sonoma County said Wednesday morning that many schools and districts in the area will remain closed through Friday, and Los Angeles County authorities warned commuters and travelers to build extra time into their plans.
“High winds can make your drive extremely dangerous,” the county wrote on Twitter.
Derek Hawkins, Marisa Iati and Jason Samenow contributed to this report.
Hundreds of pets were lost in the California fires. Their furry faces will break your heart.
Power Up: California vs. Trump: Raging wildfires show the risks of Trump’s climate approach