Heat Wave, Threat of ‘Devil Winds’ Put Southland Fire Crews on High Alert
The L.A. County Fire Department is leasing firefighting aircraft like this Super Scooper from the Government of Quebec. (Courtesy L.A. County Fire Dept.)
Writers and rock bands, from Raymond Chandler and Joan Didion to the Beach Boys and Survivor, have summoned the seasonal hot blast of Santa Ana winds to imbue their work with a sense of dread and menace.
In his short story "Red Wind," Chandler writes of the hot dry winds that sweep down from the mountain passes to curl you hair and set your nerves on edge.
“On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight,” he writes. “Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen.”
“They call it the Devil Winds,” says Tony Bell, spokesman for L.A. County Supervisor Michael Antonovich.
The Santa Anas can uproot trees, blow out windows and whip a modest brush fire into a monstrous inferno.
“It’s hotter than Hades, and when you add on top of that four years of drought, you’re looking at a potential for devastating wildfires,” says Bell.
One deadly example is the October, 2006 Esperanza Fire in Riverside County. The arson-ignited inferno was deliberately started at night, just as Santa Ana winds were reaching a fever peak.
A crew of five U.S. Forest Service firefighters was pinned down at the top of a ridge and killed by the fast-moving flames.
Los Angeles County beefed up firefighting resources this month, when Santa Ana winds tend to be at their most fierce. That includes leasing a fleet of water-dumping aircraft from Canada.
There’s also another seasonal resource for firefighters and for residents in fire-prone parts of the region designed for just this time of year.
The Forest Service developed the threat index with climate experts at UCLA and San Diego Gas and Electric.
U.S. Forest Service meteorologist Thomas Rolinski says it uses data culled from past wind events to get a better idea of how incoming Santa Anas will mix with fire-prone conditions on the ground.
“We can measure the severity in terms of how that event is going to impact the fire environment, how likely will it be that we get a major wildfire,” says Rolinski.
The index assigns a color to each threat level. Yellow means a fire may grow rapidly. Orange and it could be tough to contain. Red, it’ll grow really fast and likely get out of control. And finally, purple.
“When we’re in that kind of threat level, fires are going to be essentially uncontrollable,” says Rolinksi. “Not only because of how fast it’s moving but because the (firefighting) aircraft, in the strong winds, often times are grounded.”
Like those air tankers L.A. County has on loan from Canada. But Bell’s got his fingers crossed that the winds and the fire won’t materialize.
“God willing, they can release all four Super Scoopers in November,” says Bell.
“And then,” he laughs, “all we have to worry about is flooding and landslides.”
Courtesy of what forecasters say could be one of the wettest Southern California winters in recent memory.