Optimistic predictions say fires will be contained by mid-week

Strong winds, with near hurricane-force gusts, fanned three separate fires this weekend in Southern California.

More than 40,000 acres (about 62 square miles) have been scorched from Santa Barbara to Anaheim, with around 1,000 residences destroyed, said AIR Worldwide.

Governor Schwarzenegger has declared a state of emergency in the four affected counties and local officials ordered the evacuation of more than 50,000 residents.

Monday morning provided firefighters with the first lull in the fierce Santa Ana winds since the first fire began on Thursday. ‘Sustained winds will continue to weaken as a high pressure system moves east over the Rockies, but forecasters predict continued hot, dry weather for today,’ explained Dr. Tomas Girnius, senior research scientist at AIR Worldwide. ‘Officials believe that at the most optimistic, the fires will be safely contained by mid-week.’

‘Wind gusts peaked to over 70 mph on Saturday, and the hot air flow from inland deserts set numerous high temperature records across California as the fires swept over tinder-dry chaparral—the highly flammable mix of stunted trees and bushes commonly found in Southern California—and brush vegetation,” added Dr. Girnius.

‘Temperatures are forecast to reach 85°F in Los Angeles today with low humidity, but wind gusts have weakened to about 20 mph, according to the National Weather Service. Temperatures will gradually decrease Tuesday and Wednesday, as a cool moist wind from the ocean will blow over the city. Humidity is also expected to increase in the coming days, which will help slow the fires as the vegetation absorbs the moisture in the air.’

Freeway Complex Fire

The largest and most dangerous threat is the Freeway Complex Fire, which started at 9:00 a.m. PST on Saturday (November 15) near the Santa Ana River in Riverside County. By Monday morning (November 17), the fire had burned nearly 30,000 acres in Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties, destroying nearly 200 homes while threatening thousands more.

‘The area threatened by the Freeway Complex Fire has various types of residential construction, including stone exteriors and clay barrel roof tiles, both of which perform well during fires,’ continued Dr. Girnius. ‘However, many homes are surrounded by dense vegetation and have no setback. Palm trees in the neighborhood also act as a fuel. Over 26,000 people have been evacuated from the area as the fire continues to rage toward the canyons and hillsides of Diamond Bar, Chino Hills, and Brea. A major aerial effort was launched on Sunday, and officials currently estimate that the fire is 40% contained. The cause remains under investigation.’

Sayre Fire

The Sayre Fire, also of unknown cause, began late Friday in the foothills of the Angeles National Forest on the outskirts of Sylmar, about 20 miles north of downtown Los Angeles. ‘Fueled by dry brush vegetation and high wind gusts, a wall of flames burned across the hillside through over 10,000 acres,” said Dr. Girnius. “The most extensive loss occurred in the Oak Ridge Mobile Home Park, where about 500 high-end mobile homes were destroyed in the gated community. The blaze jumped the 210 and 5 freeways and closed them to traffic for parts of Saturday. In an ironic twist, the charred aftermath of last month’s Sesnon Fire abruptly ended the westward progress of the Sayre Fire, forcing it north into the Santa Clarita Valley. The Sayre Fire was 40% contained by Monday morning.’

Tea Fire

Lastly, The Tea Fire began around sundown last Thursday in the town of Montecito, about 90 miles northwest of Los Angeles in Santa Barbara County. “The Tea Fire destroyed 210 residences, including many multimillion dollar homes, and burned over 1,900 acres. County officials stated that the Tea Fire is no longer expanding and is around 95% contained as of Monday morning,” said Dr. Girnius. The cause of the blaze remains under investigation, although officials have reported that the fire was “human-caused.”

Over the weekend, the fires downed two of the five major electricity lines running from the San Fernando Valley into Los Angeles, causing intermittent power outages to some of the area’s residents. In addition, as families hosed down their residences before evacuating, water pressure levels dropped in some areas, threatening the efforts of the firefighters. Officials are also concerned that the Tea Fire may have contaminated the water supply in the Montecito area because water pipes are located in the path of the fire. Thick smoke from the Freeway Complex Fire settled over Los Angeles on Sunday, causing concerns about the air quality. Dozens of schools have canceled classes in Orange County, and a marathon in Pasadena was canceled on Sunday.

“The Freeway Complex, Sayre and Tea Fires come just a year after a series of 30 wildfires devastated California in October 2007, causing about two billion dollars in damage,” said Dr. Girnius

AIR is closely monitoring the fires in Southern California and will make additional information available as warranted by events.