Skip to content
Nation & World
Link copied to clipboard

California fires: How freezing temperatures and strong wind gusts are related

Gusts up to 80 mph in Southern California and near-zero temperatures in Denver. They are related.

Traffic continues as flames roar up a steep hillside near the Getty Center in Los Angeles. The blaze forced evacuations and has burned more than 600 acres.
Traffic continues as flames roar up a steep hillside near the Getty Center in Los Angeles. The blaze forced evacuations and has burned more than 600 acres.Read moreLos Angeles Times

What the government is calling “extremely critical and life threatening fire weather conditions” are flaring again in California with red-flag alerts posted for Wednesday and Thursday.

To the east of California, January arrived precipitously this week. Up to a foot of snow was reported in eastern Colorado Wednesday, and in the Denver area temperatures Halloween morning are forecast to flirt with zero.

That bitter chill and the wildfires are very much related, meteorologists say.

» READ MORE: California declares statewide emergency over wildfires as mass evacuation continues

Areas to the east of the state are under a dome of frigid high pressure, or heavier air. Meanwhile an area of lower pressure, or lighter air covered California. Pressure differences, or “gradients,” create wind as high pressure rushes to lower pressure.

Think of air gushing from a punctured tire. Air weighs about 14.7 pounds per square inch; the air in a tire typically is about 35 pounds per square inch.

The National Weather Service says that by early Wednesday morning, the pressure gradients in areas to the east of Los Angeles could reach record levels for this time of year.

It appears that the most-powerful flame-fanning winds are targeting Southern California, with “Santa Ana” wind gusts of up to 80 mph possible.

Winds to the north, where a 100 mph-plus gust was reported during the weekend, won’t be as extreme, perhaps 30 mph.

But given the extreme dry conditions and frighteningly low humidities, red-flag warnings were posted to the north from near Santa Cruz to the Oregon border.

“Just another day,” said Scott McLean, information officer for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Yes, he has been besieged by media news calls.

He said that while this has been another disruptive season, resulting in hundreds of thousands of evacuations and power crises, this year’s wildfires won’t rival those of 2017 and 2018.

» READ MORE: Frustration at utility rising as California blackouts endure

About 1.6 million acres burned during those two seasons, according to Fire Cal.

So far, about 250,00 acres have been destroyed this year, about a third of those in the so-called Kincaid Fire.

Why “Kincaid?” It was named for a road in the vicinity, said McLean, as was the “Camp Fire,” which had nothing to do with a camping. The names are based purely on location, McLean said.

“We’re not too sophisticated,” said McLean.