A ‘high-end and dangerous’ Santa Ana wind event will dramatically escalate California’s fire risk starting Tuesday night

Andrew Freedman

Editor focusing on extreme weather, climate change, science and the environment.October 29

Just as California’s fire weather appeared to be abating somewhat, newly issued forecasts show that for tens of millions, the worst may be yet to come.

On Tuesday and Tuesday night, the focus remains on the San Francisco Bay region, where red flag warnings are in effect as the area suffers through its third offshore wind event in a week. Critical wildfire danger exists in the North Bay region, where the Kincade Fire is burning.

At the same time, however, residents of Southern California, particularly the hilly, heavily populated stretch from Ventura County southward to the San Diego area, are gearing up for a record-strong Santa Ana wind event slated to begin late Tuesday night and last through at least Thursday morning.

This Santa Ana episode has the potential to be the worst of the season and, coming on the heels of other offshore windstorms, it means that any ignition sources, like a stray cigarette or a sparking power line, would find extremely flammable vegetation that’s ready to burn.

[Graphic: How Santa Ana winds spread wildfires in California]

“You get these events back to back, and the fuels are bone dry and ready to go,” said Rob Elvington, a broadcast meteorologist with years of experience tracking California wildfires. “By the third event, it’s like they’re soaked in kerosene.”

In sum, the number of people living in areas designated as being in either critical or extreme fire danger, which are the two worst categories, on Tuesday is about 20 million, according to the Storm Prediction Center. On Wednesday, the area enveloped by “extremely critical” fire risk, the most severe category, will expand to encompass 4.5 million, up from about 3.3 million Tuesday.

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