Powerful Santa Ana winds put officials on high alert for fire danger throughout Southern California

Hannah Fry and Rong-Gong Lin Ii, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Weather News

LOS ANGELES – Southern Californians were greeted by rustling leaves and rattling windows as the first Santa Ana winds of the gusty season blew into the area early Monday.

Offshore winds, warm temperatures and low humidity prompted the National Weather Service to issue a red flag warning signaling possible fire danger across Ventura, Los Angeles and Orange counties through Tuesday night. A dry air mass over the Great Basin pushed down overnight into the western valleys and coastal sections of the region.

These powerful winds paired with bone-dry vegetation and low humidity create welcoming conditions for wildfires. Last weekend's rainstorm only briefly increased the moisture content for small and dead vegetation in the area, which means as the Santa Ana winds pick up, the plants will quickly dry out again, according to weather service forecasters.

"Winds don't start fires, but if one ignites, the winds certainly are going to promote that fire and make it difficult to fight," said Bonnie Bartling, a weather specialist with the National Weather Service.

Winds are expected to blow between 15 and 30 mph, with gusts up to 65 mph along the coasts and valleys. Gusts in the mountains could reach up to 75 mph Monday. The Santa Ana winds are expected to peak around noon, but another surge of wind will regenerate Monday night into Tuesday morning, Bartling said.

Winds in the mountain areas of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties as well as the foothills of the Cuyama Valley won't be as strong, blowing between 15 and 25 mph. However, residents should still remain cognizant of risks for wildfires, according to the National Weather Service.

The extreme fire-weather conditions prompted Pacific Gas & Electric to shut off power to thousands of customers in Northern California ahead of the strong winds.

By late Sunday, the utility had shut off power to more than 17,000 customers in Lake, Napa and Sonoma counties. An additional 42,000 customers in the Sierra foothills lost power in the counties of Amador, El Dorado and Calaveras. Other counties that could come under power outages are Butte, Sierra, Placer, Nevada, Plumas and Yuba.

The move is part of a strategy by utilities across California to reduce the risk of wildfires sparked by utility lines that break during extreme winds. Many of California's most destructive fires -- including several that raced through wine country last year -- were attributed to power lines.

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Other utilities including San Diego Gas & Electric have shut off power during extreme winds in local areas, but the PG&E warning covers a vast area of Northern California -- mainly in the Sierra foothills and the North Bay.

Southern California Edison said Sunday it was considering shutting off power in parts of Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties that might be affected by the winds.

Up to 130,000 customers in 41 cities could be affected, but utility officials said early Monday it isn't inevitable that people will lose power -- more of an option for the utility if the need arises. As of Monday morning, officials had no plans to cut power across the Southland, Southern California Edison spokesman David Song said.

In addition to fire danger, strong winds also can pose hazards for drivers and cause trees and other objects to fall unexpectedly. Drivers should be prepared for sudden, strong crosswinds on mountain roads, particularly near canyons that can cause a funnel of wind. Officials also warned that boaters and kayakers will be affected by strong winds in waters near the shore.

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