Fire risk to worsen through November
California’s fire risk, already at very dangerous levels with massive fires burning in Butte County, Malibu and other locations, is only going to worsen this weekend, and is likely to continue at least through Thanksgiving.
On Friday afternoon, the National Weather Service issued a red flag warning for the Bay Area beginning at 10 p.m. today and continuing through 4 p.m. Sunday.
Citing “critical fire weather conditions,” the agency said that wind gusts blowing from dry inland areas toward the ocean could reach up to 60 mph in the East Bay hills, Santa Cruz Mountains and North Bay hills, with high temperatures in the 70s and humidity in the bone-dry single digits.
“There’s no relief in sight for now,” said Carolina Walbrun, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Monterey. “The danger remains. The underlying conditions remain.”
A similar red flag warning remained through Friday night in Los Angeles and Ventura counties, with the National Weather Service saying dire conditions are expected again there from Sunday through Tuesday. Santa Ana winds of up to 70 mph and low humidity will bring “a near imminent chance of widespread critical fire weather conditions,” and rapid spread of any fires that are started, forecasters said in an urgent bulletin.
Perhaps more ominous, there is no rain forecast for Northern or Southern California for at least the next 10 days.
That means that every warm, dry windy day between now and then will only further dry out shrubs, trees and grasses. A single spark could well cause more fires like the ones that leveled the town of Paradise in Butte County Thursday night, killing at least nine people, and which raged over hillsides in Ventura and Los Angeles counties in Southern California on Friday, burning celebrity homes and causing more than 150,000 people to evacuate in the three areas, according to Cal Fire officials.
Experts offered stark advice.
“Be careful. Pray for rain,” said Craig Clements, director of the Fire Weather Research Laboratory at San Jose State University.
Clements on Friday afternoon was driving back from Butte County, where he and his students were sampling fire behavior. He said he was shocked at how quickly the Camp fire spread, rushing across roughly 90,000 acres.
Clements noted that October is usually the most dangerous month of the year in California for wildfires. Because it has often been roughly six months since the state experienced any significant rain, vegetation is the driest and most flammable that it gets all year. Many of the state’s most devastating fires, from the 1991 Oakland Hills blaze to last year’s deadly Wine Country fires, happened in October.
Usually by Thanksgiving, however, some rain has fallen, dampening the ground and easing the risk that fallen power lines, campfires, or sparks from outdoor equipment and vehicles will set off an inferno. But not this year.
“The fuels are critically dry and they are only getting worse,” Clements said. “And now we are getting strong winds. This is a crazy year.”
The dry, warm weather in recent months has been caused by a persistent ridge of high pressure over the Pacific Ocean.