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Bone dry + brutal heat + gusty winds = unseasonably early wildfires

By Ed Payne and Greg Botelho, CNN
updated 7:46 AM EDT, Thu May 15, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • This many fires this early is a shocker
  • "It's really awful, unprecedented," CNN meteorologist Jennifer Gray says
  • Some are skeptical that only nature is to blame

(CNN) -- This isn't supposed to be happening. Not now, anyway.

Nine confirmed wildfires have already burned nearly 9,200 acres in San Diego County.

Southern California is no stranger to wildfires, but this many fires this early is a shocker.

Residents watch a wildfire near San Diego on Friday, May 16. Wildfires devoured more than 20,000 acres in San Diego County after a high-pressure system brought unseasonable heat and gusty winds to the parched state. Residents watch a wildfire near San Diego on Friday, May 16. Wildfires devoured more than 20,000 acres in San Diego County after a high-pressure system brought unseasonable heat and gusty winds to the parched state.
California wildfires
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Photos: California wildfires Photos: California wildfires

"This is May," Carlsbad police Capt. Paul Mendes said. "This is unbelievable."

Hot winds fan San Diego-area wildfire

Wildfires aren't typically a problem in California until the summer or maybe even the fall, when things get even hotter and drier.

So what gives?

The short answer is: A crippling drought and record high temperatures.

In other words, it's bone dry and brutally hot.

Add to that gusty winds -- and you have a potent mix.

"It's really awful, unprecedented," CNN meteorologist Jennifer Gray said. "We have never seen California this dry before. So this wildfire season could be one of the worst in history."

Historic drought

California is in the midst of a long drought that has left it abnormally dry.

How bad is it?

This is how Gov. Jerry Brown put it in January: "the worst drought that California has ever seen since records (began) about 100 years ago."

The exact financial impact of the historic drought in California has yet to be calculated. But the financial blow could be in the billions of dollars.

Record heat

It's hot, hot, hot in San Diego County this month.

San Diego and El Cajon experienced record highs of 93 and 99 on Wednesday, according to the National Weather Service.

Thursday's forecast includes a heat advisory for the region, including temperatures up to 105.

"This is extreme. This has gone from dry conditions to volatile conditions," said one firefighter in Carlsbad, after using a torch to ignite backfire. "This isn't something we don't normally see until November or September."

Gusty winds

The third factor compounding the situation: strong winds that are fanning the flames.

"The wind doesn't make it any easier," Carlsbad resident Marisa Gustafson told CNN affiliate KFMB. "The wind can change and all of a sudden, it just seems like we're going to be safe and we're not."

Thousands of homes have been evacuated in Southern California. So have a nuclear power plant, a university campus and parts of a military base. Even Legoland, a popular amusement park, has been forced to close.

Officials have issued some 23,000 evacuation notices in Carlsbad alone. And with nine fires burnings, firefighters are pooling their resources to try and gain control.

"This is only going to get worse," meteorologist Gray said.

The skeptics' take

While investigators know what's keeping the fires burning, they haven't determined yet what caused them to flare up in the first place.

So many fires, so quick, all of them separate -- that has some skeptical that only nature could be to blame.

Among those confounded are San Diego County district supervisor Bill Horn who says he hasn't seen anything like this in at least 20 years.

"I'm sure it could be by chance," he said. "I just think there's too much of a coincidence here."

What to know about wildfires

CNN's Andrew Spencer contributed to this report.

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