On Wednesday, a fire sprung up in the Sepulveda Pass, adjacent to the 405 freeway, just as rush hour hit. It was just one of multiple fires that have now burned over 300 homes, and forced 200,000 area residents to evacuate. As I'm typing this, another fire just started in Malibu.
Why are these fires spreading so fast? During the late fall and early winter, Southern California is affected by the Santa Ana winds, which race down out of the Great Basin deserts far to the northeast. They're dry, warm, and powerful, sucking any remaining moisture out of the already dry vegetation, fanning flames, and spreading embers. On ridgelines, gusts have reached 70 miles per hour. And the wind is expected to continue through Friday.
The Santa Anas are especially dangerous right now, as last winter's heavy rain caused grass and brush to grow like crazy. That wet winter and early spring then turned into an exceptionally hot summer, which killed and dried out all the new growth. So far this fall, there's been no rain, so all that biomass is just laying around on hillsides, waiting for a spark. It starts easily, burns quickly, and spreads fast. In the steep canyons of local hills, that makes these fires very, very hard to fight.
Burning in the city's fanciest neighborhood—Bel Air—the Skirball Fire is producing many of the headlines, and some scary photos and videos. But it's the Thomas Fire near Ojai and Ventura that's causing the most damage. This morning, my girlfriend and I laid in bed and pored over maps and read headlines to determine which of our friends and favorite businesses up there (including Patagonia) may be under threat or already destroyed.
Patagonia's headquarters are in Ventura, and yesterday they served as an evacuation center, before they also had to be evacuated.
Many of the areas impacted by these fires are made up of ranches, farms, and fancy houses. That means many animals, including dogs and horses, are under threat. I just called shelters in the affected areas, and the only one that didn't have a busy signal reported that they were overwhelmed with new intakes. Once I finish writing, my plan is to drive up there and grab a dog or two to foster until this is all over. If you'd like to do the same, just show up at the West Valley or East Valley shelters—they're processing the fostering paperwork on the spot and have a special need for homes that can take large dogs.
Here in Hollywood, we're under no threat of wildfire, but even though the winds are pushing the smoke out to sea, it still smells very smoky. We can hear fire engines racing west down Sunset to help in Bel Air about once every half hour. Traffic across the entire region is abysmal, as major highways are intermittently being closed and opened as the fires spread.
Local social media feeds are filled with offers of guest bedrooms for people and pets displaced by the fires.
When I wrote this on Thursday morning, the winds appeared to be calm, but forecasts predicted they could pick up again in the evening, reaching speeds of up to 80 miles per hour.