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Home > Natural Resources > Disaster Resources

California Wildfires Driven by Santa Ana Winds and Drought

The Santa Ana winds are warm, dry winds that appear in Southern and Central California weather sweeping wildfires and temperature changes across the state and ocean.

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California water conservation trees and watertable The Santa Ana winds (or Santana winds) are warm, dry winds that characteristically appear in Southern California weather during autumn and early winter by sweeping across the deserts and across the Los Angeles Basin pushing dust, fire and smoke across the region and into the ocean skies. Santa Ana Winds.

These hot winds are the result of air pressure buildup in the high-altitude Great Basin between the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains. This high energy wind spills out of the Great Basin and is pulled by gravity into the surrounding lowlands. The air circulates clockwise around the high pressure area bringing winds from the east and northeast to Southern California (the reverse of the westerly winds characteristic of the latitude).

During Santa Ana conditions it is typically hotter along the coast than in the deserts and the humidity plummets to less than 15%. As the Santa Ana winds are channeled through the mountain passes they can approach hurricane force. The combination of wind, heat, and dryness turns the chaparral into explosive fuel for the infamous wildfires the region is known for. Wildfires fanned by Santa Ana winds periodically burn thousands of acres along the coastal regions the winds rush through.

Wind-driven Wildfires in Southern California

Fall is "fire season in Southern and Central California, with thousands of acres of wildfires leapfrogging up mountains, across flats and through small communities and the edges of cities.

Periods of drought are especially dangerous when the Santa Ana winds blow because the speed and velocity of the fire increases the leapfrogging of flames and the flight of fireballs that make it very difficult for fire fighters to slow the advancing fireline. Balls of fire can be hurled up to a quarter of a mile and ignite new fields, trees or houses.

2007 puts California several years into a drought cycle and the Santa Ana Winds are especially strong. Those two factors collide and are causing some of the highest fire risk in recent history.

October, 2007: 9 wildfires burn from the Mexican border, along the coast all the way to

  • Thousands of residents are being evacuated from rural and urban communities as their homes are threatened with wildfire that cannot be contained due to high winds and the extensive spread of the fires.
  • Livestock and pets are being evacuated
  • 27 school systems are being closed across San Diego county and northward.
  • Businesses are closed and threatened with fire.
  • Highways are closed, reducing traffic and community activity
  • Thousands of acres are being scorched and organic material being burned...and turned into smoky carbon -- a major contributor to climate change and particulate matter.

Pacific Ocean Benefits of the Santa Ana Winds

Every natural system is a balance -- harmful effects in one place always seem to be balanced with beneficial effects in another dimension of the natural system. So, too, with the Santa Ana Winds.

NASA imagery has tracked the impact of the Santa Ana Winds and their effect on the surface temperatures of the Pacific Ocean.

"These strong winds, which blow from the land out into the ocean, cause cold water to rise from the bottom of the ocean to the top, bringing with it many nutrients that ultimately benefit local fisheries," said Dr. Timothy Liu, a senior research scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., and Quikscat project scientist.

Santa Ana consequences include vortices of cold water and high concentrations of chlorophyll 400 to 1,000 kilometers (248 to 621 miles) offshore.

Quikscat instrument measurements showed sea surface temperatures dropped four degrees Celsius (seven degrees Fahrenheit) during the February 2003 Santa Anas. That was a sign that upwelling had occurred, meaning, deep cold water moved up to the ocean surface bringing nutrients.

Scatterometers such as Quikscat have a large enough field of view and high enough resolution to easily identify the details of coastal winds, which can affect the transportation, ecology and economy of Southern California.

High pressure develops inland when cold air is trapped over the mountains, driving the dry, hot and dusty Santa Anas (also called Santanas and Devil's Breath) at high speeds toward the coast. The winds, occurring in fall, winter and spring, can reach 113 kilometers (70 miles) per hour. They happen at any time of day and usually reach peak strength in December.

Telltale signs on the coast include good visibility inland, unusually low humidity and an approaching dark brown dust cloud.

For information about NASA programs on the Internet, visit: NASA.

For information about Quikscat and SeaWinds on the Internet, visit: JPL is managed for NASA by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

Edited by Carolyn Allen, owner/editor of California Green Solutions
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