Wildfires rage north of Los Angeles

Monday, October 13, 2008

Santa Ana wind conditions as seen from space.
Image: NASA.

Two large wildfires burn uncontrolled north of Los Angeles, California. The blazes, known as the Marek fires, have burned over 3700 acres and caused the evacuation of more than 1200 people. Furthermore, at least 30 mobile homes were destroyed.

One confirmed fatality has been reported and described as an unidentified transient who had been using a cardboard shelter beneath a freeway overpass. However, the Associated Press reports a second related death from a traffic accident.

Authorities expect to order more evacuations before the fires can be brought under control.

Fires started Sunday due to Santa Ana wind conditions in the San Fernando Valley and Angeles National Forest on the northern outskirts of Los Angeles. Affected communities include Porter Ranch and the Lopez Canyon area.

The sparks were flying down on us.

—Evacuee Glenn Bell, age 50

Santa Ana winds as strong as 65 miles per hour fanned the flames, which jumped the eight-lane 210 Freeway. Both the 210 Freeway and 118 Freeway were closed during Monday morning rush hour. Firefighters have contained smaller blazes that occurred elsewhere in Southern California near the Los Angeles suburb of Santa Clarita and in neighbouring Ventura County.

Local resident Glenn Bell told Reuters about his last minute evacuation. "The sparks were flying down on us," he said, recalling how a locked gate nearly trapped him and his family, "and as I'm busting the gate... I see the cypress trees that are right next to our house on fire."

Los Angeles County fire inspector Frank Garrido described the problem as "a blowtorch we can’t get in front of," according to The New York Times. "Wind is king here, it’s dictating everything we are doing," he continued.

Scott Stephens of the Center for Fire Research & Outreach at the University of California, Berkeley calls Southern California's Santa Ana winds "some of the strongest, most severe fire winds in the world."

Among the problems caused by Santa Ana winds, which blow from the nearby Mojave Desert toward the Pacific Ocean, is a tendency for hot embers to leapfrog and start new fires. Santa Ana conditions tend to occur from autumn through spring and can reach peak speeds of 70 miles per hour (113 kilometers per hour).