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Fabled Santa Ana Winds Fuel Wildfires in California

The massive wildfires in Southern California have been fanned by notoriously hot, dry winds that move through the region every fall and winter. Some call them the Santa Anas. Others call them the Devil's Breath. Since Sunday they have been blowing at near record speeds.

These winds begin when masses of cold air form over high desert plateaus in Utah and Nevada. The winds that spin off of these high pressure systems grow warmer, dryer and stronger as they spill south and west, down through mountain canyons towards the ocean.

When the winds are moderate, they blow air pollution out to sea and make life in Southern California more pleasant. But last week, after a gigantic mass of air formed over the high plateaus, the Santa Ana winds turned into monsters.

Mike Davis, a historian from the University of California, Irvine, says the high speed winds, rushing into canyons, produced "literally a blast furnace effect at the other end of the canyon."

That is what happened on Sunday, he says, when fires burned all the way to the beach.

Hurricane-Force Winds

Malibu is one of several towns and cities ravaged by the wildfires. Those fires have been fanned by a set of Santa Ana winds that is among the most ferocious since the government started keeping records in the 1930s.

"It's probably up there in the top five, as far as wind speeds go," says Eric Boldt, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

He says one monitoring point, just above the Point Mugu Air Station, measured winds traveling 111 mph. Winds at another point reached 108 mph. That is the speed of winds in a Category 2 hurricane.

"Not every place felt that, obviously, but many areas did see winds of 40 to 60 mph, and that's like a tropical storm or Category 1 hurricane," Boldt said.

Worst May Be Over

Weather experts say they do not know exactly why the recent spate of Santa Ana winds has been so hellish, nor do they know whether more freakish winds and fires will arrive during the coming winter.

But Robert Fovell, an atmospheric scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, says he has a hunch that the worst is over.

"As we go on through the winter, we will still have Santa Anas, but they are typically not as hot and not as dry," he says. "As we go through the winter, we have rain, and rain decreases the plant moisture, so it decreases the fire danger."

Fovell says the biggest question now is when the next big rains will come, if they come at all. For more than a year, the region has been mired in a severe drought.

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John Nielsen
John Nielsen covers environmental issues for NPR. His reports air regularly on NPR's award-winning news magazines, All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition. He also prepares documentaries for the NPR/National Geographic Radio Expeditions series, which is heard regularly on Morning Edition. Nielsen also occasionally serves as the substitute host for several NPR News programs.