In an early start to the season, several wildfires grew this week in Southern California affecting Carlsbad, San Marcos and Camp Pendleton. The fires were enabled by hot, dry and windy conditions placing fire containment efforts at a disadvantage. At least 125,000 evacuation notices were issued. One fatality has been reported, and at least fifteen buildings have been destroyed. Media reports indicate a minimum of USD20 Million in damages.
The hot, dry and windy conditions have lapsed only recently allowing some recent progress in fire containment efforts.
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A period of exceptionally hot, dry weather together with offshore flow and weak Santa Ana winds affected the Southern California area this week. These conditions enabled wildfire ignition and growth, leading to fires that were at times uncontrollable.
These effects were enabled by an unusually strong arm of the subtropical ridge resting over the area (connected to the Great Basin High). According to the National Weather Service (NWS), record high temperatures were set at 12 locations including Santa Maria at 105oF (41oC - also a monthly record), LAX airport at 97oF (36oC - also tied for a monthly record), 101oF (38oC) at Long Beach, and 103oF (39oC) in downtown Los Angeles (also 1 degree short of the monthly record from 1896). NWS red flag warnings remain in effect today for the Sequoia National Forest, the Indian Wells Valley, the southeastern Kern County Desert and the Kern County Mountains.
Santa Ana winds further enabled this event, and at times offset containment efforts. Peak wind gusts were generally 50 mph (80 km/hr) or less, with some isolated peak gusts exceeding 55 mph (90 km/hr). However as a Santa Ana event, this was unremarkable in comparison to past events with winds well exceeding 100 mph.
As the ridge and Great Basin High weaken and shift, a trend towards cooler conditions and onshore flow should prevail through the weekend, with perhaps some light rain according to the NWS. During this period, brief wind bursts at sundown (or “sundowners”) may escalate fire propagation for brief periods of time, particularly in Santa Barbara County. However the onshore flow and cooler temperatures should reduce overall fire progression, and lend some welcome support from nature for fire containment efforts.
Wildfire activity has affected Southern California since at least May 13 under hot, dry windy conditions. Until recently, firefighters have been struggling with fire containment efforts in 100oF+ (38oC+) degree heat and untenable wind conditions.
Ten fires have destroyed at least fifteen structures since May 13 including at least eight houses, an 18-unit condominium complex and two businesses. The burned structures have resulted in at least USD20 Million in damages according to early media reports. The hardest-hit areas were in San Marcos and Carlsbad. Firefighters found a badly burned body May 15 in a transient camp in Carlsbad as the first reported fatality.
As of midday May 16, some evacuation orders had been lifted in San Diego County as crews built containment lines, according to media reports. This followed a flare-up on May 15 where 18,000 evacuation notices were issued. This fire was ten percent contained as of the morning of May 16.
The San Marcos flare-up was enabled in part by topography in a heavily vegetated area. This fire ran very near the California State University San Marcos, where around 10,000 students were evacuated during final exams and graduation ceremonies were cancelled. The threat of fire was responsible for school closures, amusement park closures and the closure of Legoland according to reports.
At least 125,000 evacuation notices were sent according to officials and media reports.
To the north, two fires affected the Marine Corps’ Camp Pendleton base. One started on May 15 and grew from 600 acres (240 hectares) to 8,000 acres (more than 3,200 hectares) according to base officials. The fire was ten percent contained. The second fire started May 14 and burned nearly 10 square miles (26 square kilometers) of dry brush. That fire was 15 percent contained according to base reports. A Camp Pendleton firefighter was treated for heat exhaustion. Reports indicate that numerous evacuations were also necessary including military housing and a school.
Reports also indicate that a nuclear power plant was threatened, prompting evacuations and fire suppression efforts for the immediate area. The fires also affected brush along the I-5 freeway, resulting in a period of closure.
Officials indicated that a number of assets were available for firefighting efforts, including four air tankers and 22 military helicopters, and local agency helicopters.
Investigation efforts are underway to determine the cause of the fires in a season that usually has a much later start.
Sources: U.S. National Weather Service, Reuters News, Agence France Presse, Associated Press.
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