Environment & Science

October means high fire danger thanks to Santa Ana winds

File: A helicopter flies over the Lake Fire in the San Bernardino National Forest.
File: A helicopter flies over the Lake Fire in the San Bernardino National Forest.
Stuart Palley for KPCC

Wildfires have been burning across the state, particularly in Northern California, but we haven't hit the height of fire season. That's usually October and into November, San Bernardino County Fire Department spokesperson Tracy Martinez told KPCC, as that department tries getting the word out that people need to prepare for possible fire.

"Usually after November, it does down quite a bit. The height of it really is in October. In the 2003 fires, the 2007 fires that we experienced, which were some of the worst in this state, were all in October," Martinez said. "Now is definitely the time to clear the vegetation and trim up the trees and brush in your area."

The Santa Ana winds bring a lot of warm air, quickly drying out plants in the area. Those winds also help spread fire once it starts.

"In 2003, we had winds upward to probably 80 miles per hour, with wind gusts, and in '07, we had the same thing," Martinez said. "What happens is, just one little spark can ignite a brush fire. And the Santa Ana winds come up, and the fire just really starts raging, and it puts everyone in danger."

Martinez emphasized that it's important for people to take mandatory evacuation notices seriously when they come.

"Look at the fires up north. They've lost five people in fires, and there's numerous people still listed as missing. We don't issue those warnings lightly," Martinez said.

It's important for the public to be fire agencies' eyes and ears for potential fires, Martinez said.

"You see someone driving a vehicle and there are sparks coming out from the vehicle, or you see someone using electronic equipment outside, such as a lawnmower, or an edger, anything like that, or you see someone flick a cigarette out a window, those are things that we need people to call 911 about. Because that can start a fire that can ignite and just take off very quickly, especially in the height of the Santa Ana wind," Martinez said.

One way to be prepared: The Santa Ana Wildfire Threat Index online, which provides a six-day forecast for large potential fires in Southern California based on factors including wind, humidity levels and temperature, Martinez said. You can also find more tips on how to prepare for fire season and what to do when there is a fire at the department's "Ready! Set! Go" page.

The National Weather Service has already warned of likely triple-digit temperatures coming up, Martinez said, and the Santa Ana winds could start blowing quickly after that. The local Office of Emergency Services monitors the weather and remains in constant contact with the NEWS, Martinez said, and if they know that a large Santa Ana wind event is coming up, they may call in additional equipment other agencies and counties.

Martinez warned that the fires we've seen this year have been behaving differently than in years past.

"The fire behavior this year has been pretty erratic, where it doesn't just take the wind, but there's so much dry brush due to the drought that there's a lot of undergrowth, there's a lot of unburned areas, and the fires are burning much hotter and much quicker," Martinez said.

One way to know when fire danger is at its highest: county fire stations in participating areas fly red flags when the National Weather Service has issued a weather watch or a red flag warning, Martinez said, in order to help make the public aware that they need to exercise "extreme caution" at that time.