LOS ANGELES — In an ominous new warning, the National Weather Service issued a rare “extreme red flag warning” for Southern California through Thursday evening, saying winds could top 80 mph and be the strongest in more than a decade.
Officials worry the winds could prove disastrous for the smoldering Getty fire, which broke out shortly after 1:30 a.m. Monday along the 405 Freeway near the Getty Center museum and quickly spread into tony neighborhoods. A day after it sparked, the blaze had charred 658 acres, burned several homes and sent thousands of residents fleeing in the dark. The fire was 5% contained as of early Tuesday.
Favorable weather conditions — including elevated humidity and diminished wind speeds — helped firefighters slow the growth of the blaze overnight despite flare-ups east of Tigertail Road in Brentwood, where homes had burned hours earlier.
“Our focus was taking full advantage of those conditions overnight,” said Margaret Stewart, a Los Angeles Fire Department spokeswoman.
With about 1,100 firefighters battling the blaze, crews’ main objective Tuesday was to boost containment ahead of extreme Santa Ana winds set to arrive overnight and into early Wednesday. The gusts are expected to be the worst the region has seen this season, said LAFD Chief Ralph Terrazas.
Fire officials worry the high winds may blow smoldering embers miles away from the body of the blaze, setting new spot fires in dry brush or igniting homes.
“It only takes one ember to blow downwind to start another fire,” Terrazas said. “We’re very concerned about tonight’s wind event.”
For that reason, fire officials say mandatory evacuations for thousands of residents — east of Temescal Canyon Road, north of Sunset Boulevard, south of Mulholland Drive and west of the 405 Freeway — will remain in effect.
Many displaced Angelenos will not be permitted back into their neighborhoods for at least another day, officials said.
“I’m sure we’ve all gotten phone calls and had conversations with people saying, ‘Well, there’s not a lot of smoke. It should be fine to go home.’ I want to continue to tell people: Listen to the professionals and the firefighters who are asking you to stay away,” said Mayor Eric Garcetti, adding that evacuation centers set up Monday were still open.
“People will not be returning to their homes this evening. You should prepare for that now,” Garcetti said.
The cause of the blaze has not been determined. However, investigators were focusing on utility lines where it began Monday morning along the 405 Freeway in the Sepulveda Pass, according to two sources familiar with the investigation.
Santa Ana winds blowing between 50 and 70 mph with isolated gusts up to 80 mph in the Santa Monica and San Gabriel mountains were expected to arrive late Tuesday and last through Thursday evening, forecasters said. The predicted wind speeds prompted the National Weather Service to issue an extreme red flag warning, cautioning the public of high potential for “very rapid fire spread, long range spotting and extreme fire behavior with any new fire ignitions.”
“This is the worst since we had an event in October 2007,” National Weather Service meteorologist Tom Fisher said. “Don’t let your guard down.”
During the 2007 weather pattern, a series of fires broke out across Southern California and burned more than 198,000 acres, destroying 1,500 homes, injuring 40 firefighters and causing two deaths. The most significant of those fires was the Witch fire in San Diego County, which ultimately led the region’s major utility to spend about $1.5 billion to update its grid to avoid sparking future fires.
The strong Santa Ana winds are the result of a combination of high pressure and frigid, dry air from Canada.
The clockwise circulation around that high-pressure system drives northeasterly winds over mountain peaks and through narrow passes and canyons, which increases the velocity and dries out the air more. The air is colder and heavier because it originated near the Arctic Circle, so it gains more momentum than in a warmer, offshore wind event.
“When you have cold air, it tends to sink, and when you have winds coming down the mountain, it causes it to accelerate,” said Kristen Stewart, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard.
The arrival of high winds across the state means that more than 2 million Californians could once again lose power amid concerns by utility companies over wind-blown equipment sparking wildfires.
Southern California Edison has already shut off power to more than 100 customers and is monitoring an additional 206,000 customers for possible shutoffs in Kern, Los Angeles, Mono, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties in the coming days.
Pacific Gas & Electric Co. announced Monday it could shut off power to 605,000 customers Tuesday and Wednesday in its latest bid to reduce the wildfire risk.
The counties that may be affected by the PG&E shutoff are Alameda, Alpine, Amador, Butte, Calaveras, Contra Costa, El Dorado, Humboldt, Kern, Lake, Marin, Mendocino, Napa, Nevada, Placer, Plumas, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Shasta, Sierra, Siskiyou, Solano, Sonoma, Tehama, Trinity, Tuolumne, Yolo and Yuba.