With powerful Santa Ana winds gusting as high as 80 miles per hour, firefighters are bracing themselves for another challenging day in Southern California. Over the course of the week, destructive wildfires in the state have forced the evacuation of more than 230,000 people, destroyed hundreds of homes, and torched over 80,000 acres of land.
Since the wildfires began on Monday evening, at least 14 different blazes have swept through a region extending from San Diego to the San Fernando Valley. The fires are being fueled by unusually strong Santa Ana winds and large amounts of dry vegetation—ironically caused by heavy rainfall earlier this year—which are now parched and dried out.
The fires have caused severe traffic disruptions, closed schools and museums, and triggered power outages. The largest of the fires, the Thomas Fire, encompasses an area measuring 115,000 acres, and it’s just five percent contained. States of emergency have been declared in Ventura and Los Angeles counties, including the city of LA itself. To date, some 230,000 people have been forced to flee their homes. No deaths have been reported, but several firefighters have sustained injuries.
Flying above California aboard the ISS, Russian cosmonaut Sergey Ryazansky took these photos of the wildfires.
Earlier this week, California’s Office of Emergency Services sent a broadcast text alert to 12 million people across seven different counties warning of the wildfires. It’s the largest alert the office has ever sent. The state is hoping to avoid a repeat of early October 2017 when wildfires killed 44 people in the state. The text didn’t ask people to evacuate, but instead advised of dangerous conditions.
Meteorologists have had to adjust to the severe conditions. A color-coded system used to convey wind strength reached uncharted levels, going past the red “high” level, moving into the purple zone, which indicates “extreme” winds. Incredibly, at 80 mph (130 km/h), the winds reached hurricane-force levels.
“The forecast for tomorrow is purple,” said Ken Pimlott, director at the California Department of Forestry and Fire protection. “We’ve never used purple before.”
These winds are fueling existing fires, turning small brush fires into raging infernos in a matter of minutes, and blowing hot embers into adjoining areas, potentially starting new fires. These high winds are also making it difficult—if not impossible—for firefighters to do their work.
On Thursday, the wildfires swept through northern San Diego county, moving toward Oceanside and other coastal communities. The Lilac fire, which extends for 4,100 acres and is zero percent contained, made its way through the Bonsall area, torching areas along State Route 76 corridor and destroying 20 buildings.
Earlier this week, 29 horses—including elite thoroughbred race horses worth hundreds of thousands of dollars—were killed when the fire reached the San Luis Rey Training Center. Those rescued endured severe burns, and were treated for smoke inhalation, dehydration, and stress. In Bonsall, around 500 horses had to be rescued when the Lilac Fire began to threaten the region some 45 miles north of San Diego, according to CNN.
“There was so much smoke it was difficult to see,” Dan Durhan, a horse trainer, told the Associated Press. “Some of the horses were turned loose so they could be safe. They were scattered around.”
Despite these losses, firefighters are making some progress. Of the 14 wildfires, five are now classified as contained (the Oak, Riverdale, Little Mountain, Meyers, and Paper fires). In Bel-Air on Thursday, the 475-acre Skirball Fire failed to get any bigger, largely the result of firefighting crews who worked along its western and northern edges near the 405 freeway and several luxurious, multi-million-dollar homes.
Fire crews are also testing new technology. On Thursday, the LAFD tested a drone that used thermal imaging to sniff out hot spots, directing firefighters to areas in need of attention.
Sadly, southern Californians will have to stay alert, as high winds are projected to persist until Sunday. This year’s wildfire season can’t end soon enough.