Up on Mount Laguna, on a late August day on which the thermometer had hit 92, Talbot Hayes scooped a dead piece of pine tree off the ground and gently gave it a twist.
The wood turned into crunchy splinters that fell to his feet, creating a puff of orange dust that briefly hung in the still air of the Cleveland National Forest.
“We are primed to burn,” said Hayes, who manages a fire fighting division for the U.S. Forest Service, which oversees the land. “Things could get bad.”
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Runaway wildfires are always a possibility in the fall, when Southern California is raked by stiff Santa Ana winds that blow across the region’s ubiquitous chaparral, the most flammable mix of brush land vegetation in the country.
But this fire season may bring something truly hellacious.
Firefighters already had to knock down the Chaparral fire near Cleveland National Forest. Things likely to get worse with return of Santa Ana winds.
Scientists, utility companies and fire experts say the extreme drought and record heat that fed huge, destructive wildfires this summer in Oregon, Washington and Northern California could produce similar outbreaks this fall across the parched expanse of Southern California.
They’re working harder than ever to expand and refine a vast system of cameras, sensors and related technology that will give first responders a jump on wildfires.
It’s meant to build on the exponential improvement that’s been made in the ability of forecasters to determine when the Santa Anas will arrive, where they will hit, and how hard they will blow. Such data is fed into computer models that predict where fires will move and how they’ll behave.
The network includes everything from high-resolution fire-watch web cameras to 220 weather stations that San Diego Gas & Electric operates throughout the county to NOAA satellites that can detect the birth of wildfires in remote canyons.
“We can’t stop the climate extremes,” said Alex Tardy, a forecaster at the National Weather Service in Rancho Bernardo. “But the technology has allowed for some great advances in reducing some of the wildfire threat.”
More heat, less rain
Climate change is making the earth hotter and drier, which not only fuels wildfires but often makes them more erratic. Firefighters worry that they’ll have to face more “fire whirls” — wild rotating columns of air and fire that erupt suddenly, throwing off embers that can spark even more fire.
Six of the hottest 10 years in San Diego history occurred from 2014 to 2020. The National Weather Service says that 2014 was the hottest on record. The average temperature for that year was 67.6 degrees. That is nearly five degrees higher than the average for the city dating back to 1876.
At the same time, San Diego’s rainfall has been declining at a slow but significant rate.
A century ago, the region received about 15 inches of precipitation during the rainy season, which extends from October 1 to September 30. Today, it averages 12.98 inches. Scientists say the figure could drop further as climate change pulls the jet stream north.
The problem has been compounded by the fact that there have been comparatively few super wet years in recent decades. The last “gully washer” year was the 2004-05 season, when San Diego got 22.60 inches of rain.
The relative dryness has made it difficult for the region to rebound from the big drought that stretched from 2012-16, the weather service says.
Greater San Diego has dodged catastrophic wildfires in recent years. But that has not been the case statewide. The eight largest wildfires in California history occurred between December 2017 and July 2021.
It recently took a heroic effort by firefighters to prevent the Caldor fire from burning through South Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Nevada.
Experts say the terrain is so dry that wildfires sometimes burn against the wind, devouring vegetation that lies just ahead.
“It looks green in the mountains,” said Tony Mecham, a unit chief with Cal Fire and head of the San Diego County Fire Authority. “But about 90 percent of that stuff is dead. The overall dryness is separate and worse. I’ve never seen it this bad. And this is my 36th year with Cal Fire.”
It’s possible the landscape will get even drier.
There’s a 70 percent chance that, for a second straight year, a La Niña will develop in the Pacific Ocean, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. La Niña is a periodic climate pattern that sometimes results in below average rainfall in Southern California. Scientists believe that the La Niña that arose last fall contributed to a mostly dry winter in San Diego.
There’s also great concern about what appears to be a distinct shift in the timing and duration of Santa Ana wind season.
“When I moved here in 2001 Halloween was my favorite holiday,” said Neal Driscoll, a geophysicist at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “It kind of marked the end of the Santa Anas and the onset of rainfall here in San Diego. Then it kind of became Thanksgiving. And then Christmas. The Santa Ana conditions appear to be sliding later and later into the fall and early winter.
He likens Santa Anas to “an atmospheric mosquito that sucks moisture out of the air as they descend.”
The Santa Anas were especially fierce on Dec. 7, 2017, gusting through parts of northern San Diego County up to 66 mph. The vegetation was dry and the temperature was above normal.
A wildfire erupted near Bonsall, forcing about 10,000 people from their homes and knocking out power to roughly 20,000 San Diego Gas & Electric customers. Close to 160 structures were destroyed.
But the Lilac fire, as it came to be known, could have been much, much worse.
Firefighters had access to live fire-watch cameras on nearby peaks, enabling them to pinpoint the location of the blaze and better determine which way it was moving. The information helped crews to prevent the fire from spreading to Oceanside.
Such cameras have become the foundation of a larger effort by scientists, engineers, utility companies and NOAA to battle wildfires.
Special credit is being given to ALERT Wildfire, a vast and growing network of high-resolution, near-infrared fire cameras created by UC San Diego and other universities. The system has 930 cameras in five western states, including 850 throughout California, 37 which are in San Diego County.
Driscoll, a co-director of ALERT, added about 150 cameras in California in just the past year. The cameras are typically used to confirm a report of a wildfire. But they’re also constantly monitored by fire agencies.
The network played a key role in battling the Dixie fire, which is burning in Northern California, where it has consumed more than 927,000 acres.
“We are all about trying to fight fire in the incipient phase,” said Driscoll, who has seen wildfires flare up from his home in the Escondido area. “Once it gets away from you, you go from offense to defense.”
The cameras, which can be remotely operated by firefighters, each take 86,400 frames per day. Each frame is composed of 2 million pixels. In addition to what can be seen with the naked eye, the frames contain extraordinary amounts of information that can be extracted by software.
The frames “tell us something about the terrain, the vegetation level, hydration level, cloud cover, the plume, even some of the ecosystems,” said Falko Kuester, a UC San Diego engineer and computer scientist who collaborates with Driscoll on ALERT.
“We need this for situational awareness, data that shows what’s happening right now.”
The information also is used by Ilkay Altintas, director of the university’s WIFIRE lab, which blends it with other data to create maps that, among other things, predict the movement of wildfires. This kind of software can now be called up on mobile devices by firefighters working a blaze.
Learning from disaster
San Diego Gas & Electric has also become a key player, in the wake of a disaster sparked by downed lines belonging to the utility and to Cox Communications.
In the fall of 2007, the Witch, Guejito and Rice wildfires combined to kill 10 people, destroy more than 1,700 homes, injure 40 firefighters and forced more than 10,000 to seek shelter at Qualcomm Stadium.
In the aftermath, investigators determined SDG&E utility had not properly trimmed trees and other vegetation growing near its backcountry power lines. The fires spawned nearly 2,600 lawsuits that were eventually settled.
Since then, SDG&E has spent more than $3 billion in ratepayer funds on a variety of wildfire safety measures. That includes replacing wood poles with fire-resistant steel poles and, in high-risk fire areas, placing power lines underground or putting extra layers of protection on overhead lines to help prevent them from igniting a wildfire when it’s extremely windy.
Perhaps more notably, SDG&E built a wide-ranging wildfire prevention program, virtually from the ground up. It includes:
- 220 weather stations that provide temperature, humidity and wind readings every 30 seconds.
- 105 high-definition cameras to help determine a wildfire’s location.
- Artificial intelligence to improve weather forecasting and reduce the number of Public Safety Power Shutoffs, the procedure in which utilities cut off electricity in specific areas during high winds to avoid downed power lines sparking a wildfire.
- A live weather map that includes temperature readings, wind direction, the highest gusts in the county and a Fire Potential Index.
Working alongside the Forest Service and UCLA, SDG&E created a Santa Ana Wind Threat Index that looks at weather and fuel moisture conditions 24/7 and estimates the likelihood of rapid fire growth when Santa Anas blow through Southern California.
The utility hired four meteorologists to monitor severe weather and track wildfires from SDG&E’s Emergency Operations Center at its headquarters in Kearny Mesa.
The team is headed by Brian D’Agostino, SDG&E’s Director of Fire Science and Climate Adaptation. A self-professed weather nerd, D’Agostino lives just 4 miles from the operations center, so he can get to the office in a hurry.
This year’s combination of exceedingly dry conditions and high temperatures has D’Agostino on edge, especially when he remembers the Lilac Fire, which sprang up so late in the fire season that it stunned some longtime wildfire observers.
“We say Sept. 1 is when the playoffs start,” D’Agostino said. “That’s kind of how we rally the team, saying, ‘We’ve been good all year but what we do over the next few weeks defines our entire season.’ This is the time we have to be as perfect as we can be.”
Recent measurements show moisture in the vegetation, or fuel load, in San Diego County hovering around 50 percent. That’s 10 percent lower than what is typically labeled “critical.”
Last year when conditions were similar, the Valley Fire burned more than 17,000 acres and destroyed at least 30 homes in towns southeast of Alpine.
D’Agostino’s team says rainfall in the coming weeks could greatly reduce risk of wildfire ignition.
“These are some of things we’re looking at but we can’t count on them,” D’Agostino said. “We have to assume it’s going to be like last year and that between now and Christmas, we’re going to have close to a dozen events that will pretty much keep our heads down for the next three months.”
The utility recently launched a Vegetation Risk Index of the highest risk trees in its service territory, which includes all of San Diego County and part of Orange County.
“We use SDG&E’s weather network every day,” Cal Fire’s Mecham said.
Ratepayers may consider it costly, but SDG&E’s fire mitigation network is considered state-of-the-art and has been held up as a model for the two other big investor-owned utilities in the state — Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison.
The 2018 Camp fire killed at least 85 people and nearly wiped out the entire Butte County town of Paradise. A faulty PG&E transmission line started the fire and the utility pled guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter.
The Thomas Fire in December 2017 in Southern California Edison’s service territory burned for more than a month, ripping through nearly 282,000 acres, leveling 1,063 structures and killing two, including firefighter Cory Iverson, who worked out of Cal Fire’s San Diego unit. The Ventura County Fire Department determined the fire started when two utility lines made contact with each other in high winds.
The data collected by D’Agostino’s team helps SDG&E decide when and where to de-energize power lines in specific areas. In those Public Safety Power Shutoffs, or PSPS, utilities cut off power in the hopes of keeping electrical lines and other equipment from falling and igniting a wildfire.
The shutoffs are a last resort and commonly lead to complaints from backcountry residents who may need electricity to pump well water on their properties and customers who are dependent on electrically-powered medical devices.
Alternately, Pacific Gas & Electric was harshly criticized for not turning off the power when the deadly Camp Fire blazed through Northern California three years ago.
SDG&E will start strategizing ahead of a CalFire Red Flag Warning, which includes sending electrical workers — most of whom live in the areas affected — out into the field to monitor conditions.
“Is there big movement on the electric lines?” D’Agostino said. “Are you seeing any flying debris? Have you seen any damage to the trees? Is there anything that you’re seeing that is an indicator that the system is becoming unsafe?”
The utility has established a baseline wind speed for each of the areas covered by its weather stations. When the wind hits a predetermined peak, SDG&E considers cutting off power. The staff also contacts the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, fire agencies, food banks, the Red Cross and other agencies.
Since 2007, the San Diego area has avoided the catastrophes seen in the past few years in other parts of the state. The next few weeks will determine whether that streak holds up.
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