The winds fanning the catastrophic Northern California fires are borne out of a complicated mash-up of meteorology, physics, geography, and topography.
Sonoma and Napa counties are thick in the midst of what some are expecting to be California’s worst set of fires ever. Those in the Golden State know to expect massive fires in the wilderness, but this particular firestorm has broken normal convention and is devouring whole neighborhoods at a terrifying rate. It’s as if a giant flamethrower has been aimed at blocks and blocks of tidy homes, leaving little more than charred rubble punctuated by the eerie pillars of fireplace chimneys. So far, 160,000 acres have burned, 2,000 homes and businesses have been destroyed – and much more is threatened.
There have been so many stories of people waking up to the smell of smoke and seeing flames in the distance, only to see those flames charging towards them at a furious rate. So rapacious have these fires been that many have reported fleeing their homes in only robes and slippers, leaving everything from their wallets to their pets in order to get out in time.
To anyone who hasn’t experienced California’s surreal hot winds – the Santa Anas in the south and the Diablo Winds (AKA the Diablos or El Diablo) in the north – it may be hard to fathom how a fire could devour a football-field sized parcel of land in . But if you know these winds, it is all too sadly comprehensible.
Basically, imagine a gigantic blow drier on its hottest setting, being turned up to high in random gusts – and when I say high, I mean hurricane force. This wind is hot and dry and strong; and if it weren’t for its diabolical relationship with wildfires, it might be kind of a sexy thing. But no, at this point it’s just dreadful.
The winds originate in the Great Basin, which you can see in the map below.
Dr. Marshall Shepherd, a leading international expert in weather and climate, describes it like this:
(He then goes into the nitty gritty of adiabatic compression and the First Law of Thermodynamics – and much, much more, all of which you can read over at .)
For this particular perfect storm, fuels were at or approaching an all-time record for dryness, according to analyses by land management agencies. The an abundance of grasses produced by “record winter rains combined with heavier vegetation stressed by years of extreme drought and disease.” Mix that with a bit of wind from the devil and the result is a burned barren landscape, ravaged and grim.
In iconic Californian writer Raymond Chandler’s short story, Red Wind, the state’s oven-hot winds are such a prominent component of the narrative they practically become a character on their own. The story opens with a telling description:
And the same goes for the red wind’s devilish relative in the north. Anything can happen when the Diablo Wind starts fanning the mayhem. Now if only some Angel Rain would come in and save the day.