Fire risk to worsen through Novem­ber

The Mercury News - - News - By Paul Rogers progers@ ba­yare­anews­group.com

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.

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