Meteorologists with the National Weather Service saw trouble on the horizon days before the fires started in Orange County — a high-pressure system was developing over the Nevada desert, and the first Santa Ana winds of the season were heading for Southern California. By Sunday, the dry desert air was speeding with incendiary effect down the leeward side of the mountains into Greater Los Angeles.
One terrifying fact about the Santa Ana effect in L.A.: Even though scientists can see the fire risk coming, they can't know when or where a fire will ignite, or in which direction or how quickly it will spread. True to the Santa Ana winds’ erratic form, the threatened winds were forecast to arrive Monday or Tuesday but kicked in Sunday night. "The nighttime part took a lot of people by surprise," says Kathy Hoxsie, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Oxnard/Los Angeles Office.
As the canon of literature about Los Angeles will attest, wildfire season is the region's annual brush with the apocalypse. As Joan Didion wrote of the Santa Ana season, "The wind shows us how close to the edge we are."
The ongoing wildfires in Northern California are among the worst in California history, scorching more than 100,000 acres and killing 17 people. So far, the Los Angeles region has been almost fortunate by comparison. Still, the fire in Orange County's Anaheim Hills that started early Monday morning has burned more than 7,500 acres in two days, and fire officials say it is far from under control.
The strength of the Santa Ana winds caused that fire to expand over a vast swath of the Southland. Social media images show brownish smoke blotting out the sky over Long Beach (several local school districts canceled outdoor after-school practices). The wildfires turned the sky over Disneyland a radioactive shade of orange. Smoke partially obscured the skyline of downtown Los Angeles.
"I’m in Huntington Beach," wrote one person on Twitter on Monday afternoon. "My windows are closed and it’s dark out."
Hoxsie says the National Weather Service is monitoring the air quality concerns as far south as Santa Catalina Island.
Asked why wildfire season started as alarmingly as it did and what might make fire season worse this year, Hoxsie says the rainy winter could be a factor. The region's combustible grass and undergrowth is taller and more abundant due to the rains. "This could be a bad fire season," she says. "There's more to burn."
She adds, "We're talking about a pretty minor difference when it comes down to it. The bottom line is any year in Southern California could be a bad fire season."
On the other hand, Robyn Heffernan, a national fire weather science meteorologist for the National Weather Service, says the wet winter at least fortified the trees with moisture, which makes the wildfire season not as bad as the worst-case scenario: a droughtlike dry winter followed by a dry spring.
The worst Santa Ana–fanned fire in recent memory, the Station fire of 2009, burned through a record 161,000 acres over a 50-day period. Hoxsie says it was the atmospheric equivalent of a rowboat caught in the eddy of a river current.
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Technically, fire season in Los Angeles begins in May. But in California, fires burn on average more than two and a half times the acreage in the month of October than they do in any of the four preceding months. "Up until yesterday our fire season was a matter of fighting one big fire at a time," says Heather Williams, spokesperson for Cal Fire. "The biggest variable [Monday] night was the winds."
The Anaheim Hills fire has burned more acres in two days than the 7,000 acres that burned over six days in La Tuna (near Burbank) in early September.
And more Santa Ana winds are on the way. The latest update from the National Weather Service warns of "critical red-flag fire weather conditions" throughout the Los Angeles region along the I-5 corridor from Thursday night through Saturday morning. "Weak to moderate Santa Ana conditions are likely sometime this upcoming weekend," the NWS said in the alert.
Wildfire season consists of 20 or so red-flag fire weather warnings from the start of autumn until whenever rainfall returns and makes grasses too wet to carry embers any longer — which isn't anytime soon.