Catastrophic winds set stage for more fires, more destruction Thursday

A Bel-Air home on Linda Flora Drive burns in the Skirball fire.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

After two days of intense firestorms, Southern California is bracing for perhaps its most challenging day as Santa Ana winds that spread the infernos are expected to peak Thursday.

The forecast is disturbing enough that the Los Angeles school system has canceled classes in many San Fernando Valley schools and officials are bracing for more fires across the region. Powerful winds can push existing fires but also help fan new ones.

“We are in the beginning of a protracted wind event,” said Ken Pimlott, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

“There will be no ability to fight fire in these kinds of winds,” Pimlott said. “At the end of the day, we need everyone in the public to listen and pay attention. This is not ‘watch the news and go about your day.’ This is pay attention minute-by-minute … keep your head on a swivel.”

Thursday morning wind gust speeds
Thursday morning wind gust speeds NWS


Thursday will be a huge challenge

A red-flag warning has been extended through Saturday across much of Southern California as firefighters struggle to get a handle on several wildfires raging across the region.

The warning, which indicates extreme fire danger because of gusty winds and low humidity, will be in effect through Saturday in Los Angeles and Ventura counties, where fires have scorched more than 80,000 acres and destroyed many homes.

Weather officials expect winds to pick up Wednesday night through Thursday, bringing “damaging” gusts of 50 to 70 mph that could knock down trees and power lines, and cause fire to spread rapidly. They also warned of isolated gusts of up to 80 mph in the mountains.

Winds will gradually weaken Friday and Saturday, officials said.

As of Wednesday morning, about 11,000 households were without power, according to Southern California Edison. Most of the outages were caused by the 65,000-acre Thomas fire in Ventura County.


Winds make a fire almost impossible to fight

Winds of those speeds are difficult to stop even by an army of firefighters.

When the Ventura fire broke out Monday evening, the winds were so strong that water-dropping aircraft were grounded and firefighters on the ground could not keep up with the pace of the flames.

Those conditions continued through much of Tuesday, as the fire swept through neighborhoods, destroying hundreds of homes.

The fire fight improved as winds calmed, allowing officials to do battle in the air and on the ground when the fire was moving slower.

But even Wednesday, the size of the Ventura fire continued to grow.

Officials are most concerned about winds pushing the flames into the Ojai Valley.

“We stand a good chance of a challenging night and day tomorrow,” Cal Fire spokesman Tim Chavez said, adding that there’s potential for fire growth on the northwest side and a high probability of spot fires. “It’s going to be a difficult night and day.”

Heavy winds could also cause the smaller fires in Bel-Air, Sylmar and Santa Clarita to grow more.


Not missing a chance

Extreme winds that expand fires by miles in a matter of minutes are of great concern to fire officials preparing to defend Ojai.

Officials emphasized the importance of keeping the fire’s northern boundary from reaching Ojai. Cal Fire Operations Chief Mark Higgins urged crews to extinguish even the smallest smoldering areas.

“Don’t pass that bush on fire,” Higgins said. “Get in there, get dirty and work hard.”

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