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Severe wind event promps fire threat in California
02:07 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Tens of thousands of residents across several California counties were without power Tuesday as officials aim to reduce fire risk from the powerful Santa Ana winds roaring through the region.

More than 11 million residents, from the central coast into southern California, were under red flag warnings due to winds exacerbating fire risks. And nearly 150,000 customers were already without power Tuesday from a combination of downed trees and power lines, and utilities proactively shutting off power to prevent fires.

Two brush fires were reignited in the footprint of the CZU Lightning Complex that burned through parts of Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties over the summer.

The North Butano Fire is currently burning within the scar left by the 86,000 acre wildfire, according to Cal Fire spokeswoman Cecile Juliette. The CZU Lightning Complex burned actively for over a month after being sparked by a lightning storm in mid-August. Nearly 1,500 homes and other buildings were destroyed and one person was killed in the wildfire.

“Having fires like this is very unusual for January,” Juliette tells CNN. “We’ve had barely any rain this year.”

Sometimes embers from a large wildfire can “hide” under the litter from the trees, and when the wind blows, the embers smoldering underground get lifted up and ignite dry brush, Juliette explained.

The wind storm has knocked down several trees, blocking firefighter’s access the put out the flames.

Winds in the highest elevation of the High Sierra had topped 100 mph on Tuesday. Strong gusts of over 50 mph were reported at San Francisco International Airport.

Several hurricane-force wind gusts in the mountains of Ventura and Los Angeles counties in Southern California were reported Tuesday. The cause of the high winds: The combination of a developing storm off the California coast, and strong high pressure building across the Western US.

Winds were expected to slowly diminish on Wednesday.

On Monday, wind gusts of more than 90 mph were reported from Sacramento to the Bay Area, with one gust reaching 100 mph near Kirkwood, east of Sacramento. A 90 mph wind gust was even reported in Tahoe, with winds well over 60 mph stretching up and down the coast.

To put that in perspective, a Category 1 hurricane’s winds are 74 to 95 mph and Category 2 winds are 96 to 110 mph. This means, wind gusts in California could reach speeds equivalent to a strong Category 2 hurricane.

Tuesday’s Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) could affect at least 280,000 customers – mostly in Los Angeles and Ventura counties but extending to customers in Fresno, Kern, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Santa Barbara, and Tulare counties – the utility company Southern California Edison (SCE) warned.

According to SCE, “When there is a high risk for a wildfire, we may temporarily shut off power to your neighborhood to prevent our electric system from becoming the source of ignition.”

Dry, hot and windy conditions combined with problems with power lines have contributed to massive fire outbreaks in the recent past, including the deadly 2018 Camp fire.

“With nearly 80% of the Western US experiencing drought conditions, the area is akin to a tinderbox,” CNN meteorologist Pedram Javaheri said.

The Southern California region could see winds exceeding 50 miles per hour Tuesday, while further north could get gusts reaching up to 100 mph, the National Weather Service said.

There are more than half a dozen other brush fires burning in the area, the largest, dubbed the Freedom Fire, is about 40 acres and has led to the evacuation of approximately 100 nearby homes just north of the city of Watsonville. So far, there have been no reports of injuries or significant damage.

Fires would flourish

The winds could be the strongest wind event of the season, forecasters say – which could make a blaze even more dangerous.

“The combination of dry fuels and tropical storm force winds could lead to downed trees and power lines, thus any ignition of new fires would flourish and rapidly expand under these conditions,” Javaheri said.

Many locations across Southern California, including Los Angeles, have not seen measurable rain since the end of December, meaning the vegetation across the region has had over two weeks to dry out.

Southern California has also experienced record heat over the last several days, in addition to the growing drought across the region.

And the wind expected to reach the region is the kind only seen every three years, the National Weather Service of San Diego said.

“So it is likely to cause some mayhem with palm fronds and the like. Secure loose outdoor objects,” the NWS said.

Nearly 30 million Californians, or about 3 of every 4 people in the state, could see high winds through Tuesday, Javaheri said.

Climate change is adding fuel to the fire

With warmer temperatures and less consistent rainfall, wildfire conditions are becoming more dangerous and occurring more frequently. Areas burned by wildfire are increasing in the US, particularly across the Western states.

The annual burned areas in the Western US could increase two to six times from current levels, according to the US National Climate Assessment.

“What is currently happening in CA is a perfect example of how Wildfire season has increased in length throughout the Western US,” says CNN meteorologist and climate expert Brandon Miller.

While Santa Ana wind events generally occur from October to March, typically, only the early months present dangerous fire weather.

“By January, the Western states should be well into the rainy season and moisture levels would be high enough to keep the fire threat low,” says Miller.

With the record-breaking fire seasons over the last several years, “Firefighters in California no longer refer to a ‘fire season’, but rather a ‘fire year,’ since climate change has increased the length of the season on both sides,” Miller said.

A chance for wet weather

There could be a sliver of good news later in the week because as the windstorm moves out through Southern California on Wednesday it could leave a parting gift of moisture, Javaheri said.

A low-pressure system developing off the coast could bring cooler temperatures and higher humidity values. And increased moisture could mean weather to quench the parched Southwest region.

In Arizona, Phoenix had a 242-day streak without precipitation and Yuma a 110-day one until both cities saw rainy days on December 10.

Lowering the widespread drought across the region could mean relief from possible fire conditions.

CNN’s Haley Brink contributed to this report.