Strong Santa Ana winds, three-digit temperatures and a bad drought have brought fire season to Southern California several months early. As of May 15 experts have said that this may well become one of the worst fire seasons to date.
Most frightening are the fire-tornados that have swirled into the air. The fires are moving quickly without containment and home videos have captured how the winds have pulled swirls of fire high into the air, a sight normally not seen in residential areas even during late summer fire seasons. Typically they would be more expected in the forests and deep brush areas of inland areas.
Record high temperatures usually expected in August and September have not helped firefighters. The first four months of 2014 have been the hottest since 1895. Words like May-gray and June-gloom are usually used to describe Southern California weather. Fog and heavy marine layers of cool weather are far more typical for this time of year. TV weather reporters are actually calling temperatures from 79-84 degrees “cooler weather.” Experts warn that the next six months will continue to have record-high temperatures with no rain in sight.
At least 10 fires are burning in San Diego County, many in residential areas. Large areas of San Marcos including the UC San Marcos campus have been evacuated. At times smoke limited visibility to just a few feet. Farm animals and stables also have been emptied by worried owners who had time to return home before streets were closed.
Carlsbad, Rancho Bernardo, Escondido, Camp Pendleton and areas in Los Angeles County have also had evacuation orders. Since the fires began Tuesday, 125,000 evacuation notices have been sent out in San Diego. Schools across the county were shut down, and the Legoland amusement park had to close Wednesday. It reopened today.
Each time firefighters think they have a fire contained dry, strong Santa Ana winds swirl it in another direction. Santa Ana winds come from the desert area and are known for their dry, strong gusts of 20-50 mph. Just a couple of weeks ago strong winds tore large dead branches from trees and even pulled large trees out by their roots throughout Hemet and other Southern California desert areas. One tree fell onto a power line just feet from my back window.
As someone who has lived her entire life in Southern California, first in Los Angeles and then in San Diego, I know how terrifying these fires can be. I have sat with items packed in the car awaiting evacuation orders and watched fires licking mountainsides and large clouds of dark smoke showing where fires remain uncontained.
Once the fires are out it will take the lucky people days of hard work to wash off all the soot from cars, windows and even the sides of houses. Others will be sorting through the charred remains of their homes, searching futilely for treasured items. Lessons from the 2007 fires have been forgotten and people have allowed brush and dried trees to remain too close to residential areas.
San Diego Sheriff Gore is investigating the possibility that some of the fires have been started by arsonists but acknowledges that they could have been started simply with a spark from a vehicle driving past.
"What we're seeing right now is just a real anomaly," said Norman Miller, an expert in regional climate and hydrology at the University of California, Berkeley. "Whether it's part of natural variability or climate change, we need to have a longer record of occurrences so we can construct a trend and make sense out of it."
Nationwide, western wildfires are expected to grow more severe as climate change continues, according to the recently released National Climate Assessment, a federal report that represents the most comprehensive review of climate impacts in the U.S. in over a decade.