High winds known as the “Santa Ana Winds” and abnormally dry conditions are the main factors behind the rapid spread of off-season wildfires burning in Southern California for the last several days. The areas affected are parts of the counties of Ventura, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, and San Diego as well as parts of the City of Los Angeles. More than 200,000 people have evacuated from their homes. Some evacuation orders have been lifted while new ones have been imposed. Here are the Cal Fire total statistics for the four largest fires, all of which are still active as of Monday, December 11:
- 199,000 acres burned (311 square miles)
- 1,065 structures destroyed
- 268 structures damaged
- 1 civilian death (car accident from resident fleeing fire)
Most of the damage is part of the Thomas Fire, which is burning in Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties (173,000 acres, 754 structures destroyed, 162 damaged, 1 fatality). Although the structure damage is high, much of the fire is burning in wilderness areas where there are few, if any, structures. Fires of this magnitude at this time of the year are unusual anywhere in California. The fire season in Northern California, which experienced the worst fires ever recorded last October, ended at the beginning of November after the start of the rainy season. However, Southern California where the fires are now burning has been unseasonably dry.
The Thomas Fire by itself now ranks as the 11th most destructive wildfire in terms of structures destroyed in California history, with 754 structures destroyed. By comparison however, the Tubbs Fire in Sonoma County in October 2017 destroyed 5,643 structures, almost eight times as many as the Thomas Fire. Several other serious fires in the Sonoma/Napa area at the same time in October drove the structure count to almost 9,000 and killed 43 civilians. Local officials were overwhelmed and requested help with damage assessment through the CA Office of Emergency Services.
As bad as the current Southern California fires are, local officials should be able to handle the damage assessment unless things take a turn for the worse. Mike Stone, NEMA’s West Coast Field Representative, will continue to monitor the situation and respond to any Cal OES callouts as he did during the Sonoma/Napa fires. He will also ensure that Southern California officials have copies of the NEMA Guide to Evaluating Fire and Head Damaged Equipment, which are also available in Spanish.