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California Wildfires

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Eric Boldt
Warning Coordination Meteorologist, NOAA
Tuesday, October 23, 2007; 2:15 PM

Massive brush fires continued to burn across Southern California Tuesday, a day after they destroyed homes from north of Los Angeles to south of San Diego, leapt freeways and sent hundreds of thousands of residents scrambling to flee -- sometimes seconds ahead of advancing flames.

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Eric Boldt, warning coordination meteorologist at NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), is monitoring the situation, updating high wind warnings and red flag warnings and performing spot weather forecasts for fire agencies fighting the wildfires. He was online Tuesday, Oct. 23, at 2:15 p.m. ET to discuss the current wildfire situation in California.

A transcript follows.

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Eric Boldt: Hello. I look forward to answering your questions.

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East Coast: Is California currently in one of its El Nino or La Nina patterns? If so, how will this affect weather across the country?

Eric Boldt: California is currently in a La Nina weather pattern. We are expecting drier than normal conditions this winter. In fact, most of the country will be on the dry side except for the Ohio River Valley region.

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San Antonio, Tex.: My nephew and niece's husband, firemen both, are in San Diego County battling the horrendous blazes presently ongoing there. When can we expect the winds to be onshore rather than offshore? When will humidity levels increase? Just how historic is the current drought in the seven county region in Southern California where the numerous fires are occurring?

Other than the 2003 Cedar fire, have there been other historic fires in Southern California, in the 1800s or 1900s, where they were fueled by the howling Santa Ana winds and extreme drought conditions?

Eric Boldt: The onshore winds are not anticipated until Thursday. We will get a minor onshore wind each evening right along the coast, but not for the interior sections until Thursday. This will bring higher humidity.

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Arlington, Va.: Growing up in California, I remember the Santa Ana winds being strong -- but never 'this' strong nor fueling so much fire.

Is climate change contributing to the strength? Or is this just a symptom of weather patterns that may have come before my time?

Eric Boldt: This is the typical season for our Santa Ana wind events. This one is just very strong and the first significant offshore event so far.

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Washington, D.C.: This has been called the perfect firestorm. Why?

Eric Boldt: I'm not exactly sure how it got that phrase, but here may be the explanation. We've been well aware of how dry things are and were expecting a rough Santa Ana season. This particular wind event (first of the season) turned out to be very strong, long lasting, and widespread. Fires broke out on the first day of the Santa Ana.

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San Antonio, Tex.: How did the Santa Ana winds derive their moniker? Also, how did they earn the nickname "devil wind?" Are there some colorful stories behind these naming conventions?

Eric Boldt: The Santa Ana Mountains were noted for these strong, hot winds and the name stuck from many years ago. The "devil wind" you are referring to is likely from the hot temperatures, gust winds, and fires that come with the Santa Ana.

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Fairfax, Va.: What's the weather forecast now? Any rain in sight?

Eric Boldt: Humidity will increase and temperatures will cool late Thursday and Friday. We are watching a low pressure system dropping down the coast late this weekend. Right now it looks like it will remain too far off the coast to give us rain. However, these systems can sometimes pick up moisture from the Pacific and give us rain a few days later.

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Washington, D.C.: How many fires are burning now? How are you monitoring them? Where does the information you gather go to? Local TV and radio stations and Internet outlets?

Eric Boldt: We have at least 20 fires going from Santa Barbara County to the Mexican border. There are many smaller fires, too. We monitor the fires just like you do, by monitoring the media on TV and Internet. We also provide spot forecasts to the fire agencies to help them do their job. When we send out our statements and warnings, then get to all the different places you mentioned.

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Bethesda, Md.: Can you talk about recent weather patterns in California? I thought humidity levels were steadily rising over the years?

Eric Boldt: Last winter season was one of the driest on record and the current Santa Ana event brings very dry air into southern California. I would think we are experiencing lower humidity in recent years, and we expect a drier than normal winter ahead.

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Annapolis, Md.: How are water supplies for the area, since it's been so hot and things are parched?

Eric Boldt: I'm not an expert in the water supply for this area, however, many communities are putting voluntary water usage restrictions in place. If we get another dry winter season there will be additional problems as the drought lengthens.

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McLean, Va.: How dangerous is the air quality out there?

Eric Boldt: It depends on how close you are to a fire or if the smoke is blowing your direction. There are air quality advisories issued by County Health Depts. about the dangers of being exposed to the smoke from fires.

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Washington, D.C.: I grew up in San Diego and lived there for 18 years. The Santa Ana winds were a fact of life EVERY year. Summer was always pleasant, and then September and October would turn into hell with periodic furnace blasts of heat from the desert.

Brush fires happened every year too! It's part of the natural habitat of SoCal.

The problem to me is not so much climate change, but the fact that suburban development has pushed homes further and further out into the wilderness and foothill areas -- areas where the fires used to reign and nobody cared (except the jack rabbits, coyotes, hawks, deer, and snakes). Now that there's development, it becomes a HUGE problem.

Eric Boldt: You bring up an interesting point. The urban interface grows each year and when a fire starts, there are immediate problems for the people living nearby.

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Boston, Mass.: How did the fires start? Was it natural (like a lightning strike) or man-made (cigarette, etc.)?

Eric Boldt: The media reports tell us most of the fires started due to power lines being blown down when the Santa Ana winds started Saturday night. Some may have been due to arson, but fire agencies will be investigating.

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Washington, D.C.: Bill Patzert a climatologist from the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, said this: "Santa Anas come in four sizes: small, medium, large and Godzilla and this one's definitely Godzilla." You agree?

Eric Boldt: Bill has a way with words, but he's correct about this one. It's one of the strongest in many, many years. We've seen a wind speed of 111 mph right near the Oxnard coast!

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Eric Boldt: It was great chatting with everyone. Thank you!

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