It could be a rough Thanksgiving in Los Angeles, as parts of Southern California are facing “critical fire weather conditions” over the next few days. The National Weather Service is warning Santa Ana winds will kick up in full force in the Los Angeles area, bringing high fire risk, possible power shutoffs, and risky driving conditions as people gather for the holiday.
The Santa Ana winds are a bit of a local celebrity. These dry winds come screaming out of the desert thanks to the pressure difference between the Great Basin to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west every fall and winter. California sits between this tug-of-war. While local lore holds that the winds can drive people to do crazy things, the reality is they create dangerous wildfires conditions in Southern California.
And the high gusts forecast over the next couple of days combined with extra-dry conditions are creating some worrying conditions indeed. The National Weather Service Los Angeles forecast office forecasts that wind could gust between 35 and 55 mph (56 to 89 kph), with isolated gusts between 60 and 70 mph (97 and 113 kph) at higher elevations. These winds, the office says, will be strongest Wednesday through Thursday morning.
These strong winds come with super low humidity that will sit in the low single-digits through Friday. Red flag warnings, which are issued by the NWS to alert people to fire risk, are in place for about 18 million people in the area.
“This is a critical period with multiple days of Red Flag conditions,” the NWS Los Angeles wrote. “The public needs to be extra cautious with anything that could start a fire.”
That means being careful on the roadways where the uptick in traffic could lead to an errant spark as well as anyone enjoying an outdoors Thanksgiving with a campfire. (To say nothing of those who might try to deep-fry a turkey without proper safety precautions.) Electrical equipment is also a huge risk, which is leading utilities to weigh shutoffs.
Southern California Edison has already said it will shut off power for 99,000 customers in its service area. Another utility, San Diego Gas & Electric, said it was also considering shutoffs, which would affect 43,000 of its customers. High winds coming into contact with power lines in early December sparked the disastrous 2017 Thomas Fire, which killed two people and burned 281,893 acres. At the time it, was the largest fire in state history, though it has since been bumped far down the list by the past few disastrous fire seasons.
Power shutoffs around the holidays are “not something we take lightly,” SoCal Edison spokesperson Ben Gallagher told the Los Angeles Times. “We look at all those areas that are high fire risk to avoid the potential of wildfires, but we also understand the hardship that [shutoffs] place on our customers, so we’re keeping a really close eye.”
Climate change has also worsened Southern California’s wildfire season in numerous ways. In addition to the megadrought that has gripped much of the West, Southern California is also losing its cloud cover. Even when winters are wet, rising heat means the summer and early fall wildfire seasons are getting worse. (Fire suppression and other policies have also played a role in that trend.)
The NWS is warning residents to stay vigilant both for fires and to exercise caution when driving, since gusty winds could make travel in some areas difficult. The nasty conditions may be an easy excuse to bail on your in-laws for the holidays. But more than anything, it’s a reminder to stay safe, Californians!