By DAN REYNOLDS, senior editor of Risk & Insurance®
Seeing a 140,000-acre fire this early in the Southern California wildfire season has got a lot of people on edge.
After all, October is usually the month when Southern California gets swept by the Santa Anas, those hot, dry, forceful winds that blew 2007's Witch Creek fire in San Diego County into such a monster. Before it was quenched, it burned more than 197,000 acres and more than 1,000 homes.
The San Francisco Bay Area has its own version of the Santa Anas, the northeasterly Diablos, and one of those was blowing fiercely hot on October 20, a Sunday morning in 1991 when the Oakland Hills fire erupted with such savage intensity, jumping the eight-lane Highway 24, burning more than 3,000 homes and killing 25 people. Homes that day were burning at the rate of one every 11 seconds.
The Station fire, which late this August and early September has swept through wildlife areas in the San Gabriel Mountains and threatened Santa Clarita, Monrovia and Sierra Madre, is indeed big and bad. But so far, it hasn't been aided by Santa Anas.
A highly competent firefighting campaign has so far protected Mount Wilson, a crest in the San Gabriels at more than a mile in elevation, which houses an observatory and 12 towers that service radio and cell-phone communications.
PLENTY OF WORRY AHEAD
Still, there is plenty of reason for concern as the true fire season in California beckons this September. For one, the San Francisco Bay Area, the coast of Mendocino and the Sacramento Valley are at a higher than normal risk of fire this September, according to Neena Saith, a London-based senior catastrophe response manager with modeling firm Risk Management Solutions Inc.
Plenty of down and dead trees and brush and a drier than normal August are the factors that have led to that higher risk. The northern and eastern areas of the state are at a decreased potential, Saith said.
Overall, the Station fire has gotten a lot of attention, but it took that 140,000-acre fire to work this up to just an average year so far in California, according to Saith. Until August 29, only 38,000 acres had burned in California in 2009. That's compared with a five-year annual average of 153,000 acres.
In 2008, which was a bad year for early fires, more than 355,000 acres had burned by August 29.
As things stand, Mount Wilson remains threatened, although backfires and fuel-break defenses are holding it safe. But in major parts of the state, there is plenty of dry, dead tinder, and those dreaded Santa Anas and Diablos haven't whipped up yet.
Had there been a Santa Ana blowing last week, when the Station fire was at its fiercest, we would be talking an entirely different story than we are now.
September 2, 2009
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