Faced with the strongest Santa Ana winds of the season this week, firefighters had been bracing for a flashpoint.
And on Monday, they got it when a fire broke out near Santa Paula and quickly exploded to more than 5,000 acres in just a few hours.
Some of Southern California’s worst wildfires have occurred in the period between October and December, when Santa Ana winds whip up. This week’s winds are tempered because the temperatures are cooler than the hot conditions seen during October Santa Anas, which sparked numerous destructive firestorms.
Powerful and damaging #SantaAnaWinds ramping up tonight into Tuesday. Here is the projected wind gusts for Tuesday morning, with winds gusting 50-70 mph in wind prone areas of LA/Ventura counties, and isolated gusts up to 80 mph in the mountains! #LAWind #LAWeather pic.twitter.com/ArdWrZXgpp— NWS Los Angeles (@NWSLosAngeles) December 5, 2017
Authorities anticipate a high fire risk with a red-flag warning in effect through Thursday. Los Angeles and Ventura counties could see wind gusts of 50 to 70 mph Monday night into Tuesday, the National Weather Service predicted.
“This will likely be the strongest and longest duration Santa Ana wind event we have seen so far this season,” the National Weather Service red-flag warning reads. “If fire ignition occurs, there will be the potential for very rapid fire spread, long-range spotting, and extreme fire behavior.”
Ventura County firefighters attacked the fire hard Monday, adding that the winds were the key factor.
“We’re really just trying to catch it around the edges and just pinching it off as quickly as we possibly can,” said Ventura County firefighter Jason Hodge, adding that crews are dealing with 25 to 50 mph winds. “That’s what’s driving this fire. So it’s a challenge, but everybody’s out there working hard and will be through the night.”
Official said the 50 mph wind gusts Monday night forced them to ground two fire helicopters, but that they hoped to get them back up when the winds calm down.
“It’s always difficult and somewhat dangerous to fly at night, so depending on different conditions and the geographic challenges is how they evaluate whether or not they can operate at night,” Hodge said.
The fire was headed south into Santa Paula from the mountains, officials said.
“The prospects for containment are not good,” said Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen at a news conference early Tuesday. “Really, Mother Nature is going to decide.”