PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — Call it the perfect firestorm.
The massive wildfires destroying communities over huge swaths of Southern California are being fueled by a dangerous combination of heat, overgrown foliage, suburban sprawl and winds so terrible that early California settlers originally named them after the devil himself — Satana, which gave way to the less menacing term, the Santa Anas.
At the heart of this unprecedented confluence of climatology and ecology is California’s ballooning population in search of affordable housing. The West Coast quest for single family, wood-frame homes has pushed development into the divide between urban areas and historically open brush land — much of it hilly, highly flammable chaparral.
Modern fire suppression efforts have guaranteed that the new construction is occurring in shrubby, forested areas that have not burned in generations. Given that the California chaparral has evolved to tolerate regular fires, that means what is essentially tinder has accumulated for decades.
Add to that last winter’s record rains, which nourished an explosion of plant growth. That lush new vegetation dried in last summer’s record temperatures and further withered over a bone-dry rainy season that should have begun more than two months ago — but didn’t.
In other words, much of Southern California is sitting atop or surrounded by a mountain of combustible fuel simply waiting for a spark.
When that spark came to areas across the region, weather conditions couldn’t have been worse: Multiple high-pressure systems have settled across the American West, forcing moisture-bearing Pacific storms to the north and bringing unusually dry weather from Seattle south to San Diego.
Those high pressure systems, in turn, create low humidity levels and funnel high winds — some of hurricane velocity — from the inland deserts to the sea. There is no rain in the forecast for the foreseeable future and meteorologists predict the winds will continue into next week.
When a fire breaks out in the tinder-dry brush or grasses, high winds can spread embers and burn vegetation with terrifying speed in landscape where humidity has sunk into single digits.
At the moment, Southern California — with its sprawling subdivisions, miles of dried vegetation, and hot weather — is at the mercy of the ruthless wind.
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