Times Staff Writer

Santa Ana winds swept through Orange County on Wednesday, prompting fire alerts, toppling Christmas trees for sale and snarling freeway traffic with blowing debris and numerous fender-bender accidents.

Hat-wearers beware: Today it’s expected to be even windier.

As for the tree-trimmers at Beck’s Tree Service in Santa Ana, where the motto is, “We Go Out on a Limb for You,” the gusts of up to 35 m.p.h. cut short the workday.

“I pulled the crews off early . . . because of the windy conditions,” said Tony Rivera, Beck’s general manager. “As we drop trimmings . . . it blows all over the place and creates big liabilities.”


The tree-trimming crews Wednesday had started lopping off the tops of cocoa palms lining Santa Ana streets.

“When you’re working around city streets and houses you have to shut it down,” Rivera said. “We work on a boom truck and do the cutting and drop everything to the ground. The wind is carrying (cuttings) about a half a block. Not good.”

Rivera’s point was confirmed when Wednesday afternoon the wind split a tree alongside Greenville Street south of Warner Avenue and toppled half of it onto a car and motorhome, closing two lanes until the mess could be cleared.

Even stronger winds of up to 40 m.p.h. in the lowlands and up to 50 m.p.h. in the mountains are expected for the county today, said Pat Cooper, meteorologist with WeatherData Inc., which provides forecasts for The Times.


Temperatures “should be in the low to mid 70s, predominantly with sunny skies,” Cooper said. “It’s just going to be real windy. There will be small-craft advisories out . . . for the coastal waters.”

The gusts out of the north--which are created by an upper-level low-pressure area developing over Arizona, combined with a high-pressure area developing over Utah and Nevada--generally cleansed the county’s skies while prompting planes at John Wayne Airport to change their takeoff paths. Takeoffs require opposing wind to ensure enough lift, an airport spokeswoman said.

According to the National Weather Service, Orange County wasn’t the only windy place in the world Wednesday. Winds were clocked at 80 m.p.h. at the Rialto Airport, said Marti Higgins, emergency services coordinator for Rancho Cucamonga in San Bernardino County, where gusts collapsed a 3-story apartment building under construction and blew the roofs off at least two homes.

Windy conditions were also reported in Albuquerque, Des Moines, Las Vegas, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Kansas City, Mo. But Chicago, the “windy city” itself, could not muster up even enough of a gust to clear its partly cloudy skies.


Locally, South Coast Air Quality Management District spokesman Bill Kelly said Santa Ana winds generally clear out pollutants.

“When you get a Santa Ana, it will blow out most of the pollutants over the ocean,” he said.

“Moderate air quality” was predicted for today “with the pollutant of most concern in Orange County being carbon monoxide,” Kelly said.

Nevertheless, he said, today’s carbon monoxide level may still reach the pollutant standard index of 100, at which point conditions are deemed unhealthful.


Meanwhile, county and federal fire officials declared a “red flag alert” Wednesday, sending patrols throughout the county and Cleveland National Forest as conditions ripened for fire.

“It’s just an increased state of alertness,” said Mike Warren, Forest Service assistant fire management officer in Cleveland National Forest.

The dry, windy conditions prompted the county district of the U.S. Forest Service to request moremoney to rehire seasonal firefighters laid off Nov. 13, Warren said.

“We’re talking about 19 firefighters (to be rehired) in this district,” which ranges roughly from the Riverside Freeway on the north and Camp Pendleton on the south, Warren said.


“The request was made 2 days ago. We were anticipating the winds.”

The part-time firefighters “already have been contacted and put on standby and are waiting for funding to put them on board,” he said. “We also are asking funding for an air tanker, helicopter and three water tenders.”

Fuel Moisture Gets Dangerous

Fuel moisture--the moisture level in growing chaparral--has reached a dangerous stage, Warren said. Coupled with the high winds and low relative humidity, “It’s pretty severe,” he said.


“We’ve canceled all burning,” he said. “There’s no permitted burning in the forest.”

Fire departments in Los Angeles County and Angeles National Forest issued “red flag alerts” shortly before noon. Small-craft advisories were issued along the coast, prompting officials to close Avalon Harbor on Santa Catalina Island to incoming craft.

Both the Department of Water and Power and Southern California Edison Co. in Los Angeles County reported that they had crews standing by to deal with power outages that might be caused by the wind.

County fire officials dispatched three emergency teams to Malibu and Antelope Valley and put on 35 more firefighters in anticipation of high winds, Inspector Elvin Miranda said.


Fireplace Sparks Feared

Orange County Fire Department Capt. Hank Raymond said problems are expected when “people start lighting their fireplaces . . . if they don’t have spark arresters on them.”

“We’ve had six or seven fires related to fireplaces” in recent weeks, he said.

Nevertheless, Wednesday’s winds caused little commotion at Newport Harbor, Orange County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Lt. Richard J. Olson said. One boat broke loose of its mooring, but it and other boats were secured before damage resulted.


“Heavy southeast winds cause more damage there than Santa Anas,” Olson said. “But they (deputies) are keeping a close eye on everything.”

Freeways were another matter, however. California Highway Patrol spokesman Mike Lundquist said, “We have many drivers who are driving like drunk drivers” despite Santa Ana wind conditions.

Drivers Need to Compensate

“They are weaving, and . . . most people don’t compensate for the winds,” Lundquist said. “That’s what causes traffic accidents. Especially hazardous is a motorcycle. The gusty winds have been known to blow people into the center divider fence.”


High winds blew debris across the Costa Mesa Freeway, causing CHP telephones to ring “off the hook,” Lundquist said.

“Our accident level was higher than normal. There were numerous crashes,” with the wind a contributing factor, he said.

The county’s high temperature Wednesday was in San Juan Capistrano, where the mercury hit 78. It was 76 in Santa Ana, 75 in Newport and 72 in El Toro. Today promises also to reach into the 70s, WeatherData’s Cooper said.

The area’s 15% relative humidity, expected again today, ensures a continued “very high fire-danger index,” Cooper said.


Not all of Wednesday’s woes could be attributed to strong, dry winds. About 2,500 mostly commercial customers south of the San Diego Freeway near the South Coast Plaza shopping mall were without electrical power beginning at 7:39 a.m., Southern California Edison spokesman Gene Carter said.

But the villain wasn’t devil winds. It was a rodent that apparently crawled into a switch, causing a short. Most of the customers had power restored within 2 hours.