Southern California may get the Santa Ana winds every year, but — according to recorded history — they’ve never been like this.
With relative humidities in the single digits along the coastal mountains, where a series of fires has scorched thousands of acres and destroyed more than 100 homes, the air is the driest it’s been here in recorded history, said UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain.
“The [relative] humidities right now along the coast are much drier than what you’d normally see in the interior desert in the summertime,” Swain said. “Once you get down to 1% or 2%, you’re down almost as low as is physically possible.”
Even as fiery tornadoes of flames began climbing the slopes of the remote box canyon he calls home Thursday morning, Jayson Kaufman figured he still had plenty of time to pack his valuables and head down mountain to Ojai.
To the chagrin of Ventura County sheriff’s deputies who issued a mandatory evacuation order the previous night, Kaufman was among 15 to 20 canyon dwellers who refused to leave their rustic cabins and geodesic domes tucked in dry brush.
“We’re monitoring the situation — and the clarity of the air — closely,” he said, eyeballing clouds of smoke filling the skies on both ends of the densely forested canyon. “This morning, the sky was super clear until about 10 a.m. Now, we’re playing it by ear.”
Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen said if the wind continues, and rain doesn’t touch the region, the Thomas fire could continue for a few more weeks.
“Until the wind stops blowing, there’s really not a lot we can do as far as controlling the perimeter, so our opportunities are hopefully going to come in tomorrow as the wind lets up,” Lorenzen said. Then, he said, the firefighters can place line around the blaze and contain part of it, but “this is a fight we’re going to be fighting probably for a couple of weeks.”
While there was once such a thing as a predictable wildfire season, Lorenzen said that season now seems to last all year — a shift, he said, potentially triggered by six years of drought and climate change.
She is taking her two daughters, ages 4 and 6, to Palm Desert — away from the growing winds that for days have filled the skies with smoke and ash and now threaten her home, which sits up a hill on a windy street on North Bundy Drive and Chalon Road in Brentwood.
She didn’t plan on returning to her white-wooded house until Sunday. As she placed bags of clothes in the back seat of her black SUV, she said that many of her neighbors already had chosen to evacuate.
Gentler-than-expected winds Thursday morning gave firefighters a toehold against the wildfire burning in Bel-Air, which was 20% contained by 11 a.m.
The 475-acre Skirball fire has not grown in nearly a day, a testament to the overnight assault that crews launched on the western and northern edges of the fire, closest to the 405 Freeway and multimillion-dollar homes, officials said.
Despite the progress, the fight was far from over, officials said. Thursday afternoon, firefighters will face bone-dry air with a relative humidity of 4%, and 33 mph winds out of the northeast that could push the fire toward the 405.
One of Ventura County’s most prominent politicians, former Dist. Atty. Michael Bradbury, walked into the Ojai police station Thursday, frustrated after days of living out of his car and monitoring the shifting Thomas fire.
Bradbury, wearing aviator glasses as he leaned on his cane, said he had fled to the Ventura County Fairgrounds earlier this week with about half of his horses — he sits on the fairgrounds board, after all — but wanted to return to his ranch in Ojai. The retired D.A., who held the position for more than two decades, just didn’t know where the fire was or whether the threat was still real.
City Manager Steve McClary sympathized with Bradbury’s frustration. “The problem with giving specifics of the fire: It could change in five minutes,” McClary said.