January 18, 2021

High, Dry Winds Could Spark An Off-Season Fire Threat Across Parts Of California On Tuesday

A critical fire risk and life-threatening rip currents are possible across parts of California over the next couple of days as high winds begin to blow across the Golden State. High wind warnings are in effect for much of southern California, as well as high elevations in the Sierra and Bay Area, in anticipation of gusts that could exceed 60 MPH at times.

Source: PivotalWeather.com

A strong area of high pressure over the northern Rocky Mountains will push against a developing low-pressure system off the coast of southern California. The tight pressure gradient between the two systems will generate powerful offshore winds that will peak on Tuesday before tapering off on Wednesday night. 

The greatest risk for high winds will exist on Tuesday, when gusts could easily exceed 60 MPH in areas under a high wind warning. Winds that strong can do damage in their own right, knocking down trees, power lines, and blowing around loose objects in backyards and on patios.

Even though we're well outside of traditional fire season in California, which typically peaks in the fall months, the combination of several favorable ingredients will lead to potentially dangerous conditions for wildfire ignition and growth.

The Storm Prediction Center's latest fire weather outlook shows an elevated risk for fire weather conditions from the eastern Bay Area down to the border with Mexico, and a critical risk for fire weather conditions for higher elevations from San Luis Obispo to northern San Diego County.

A fire consumed a few hundred acres of land this weekend in Thousand Oaks, California, and a handful of small fires broke out near Sacramento on Monday. 

While it's unusual to have this kind of fire risk in the middle of January, it's not too much of a surprise given the predicted conditions across the region right now. Temperatures will climb above normal across the affected areas. The strong high-pressure system to the northeast will help generate those powerful winds that could spread any flames in a hurry.

And it's dry. Very dry. While the worst drought is farther inland toward the deserts and Intermountain West, almost the entire state of California is mired in some level of drought, according to last week's update of the United States Drought Monitor. Dry vegetation, low humidity, relatively warm conditions, and high winds are a breeding ground for fast-spreading fires.

As if the risk for tree damage, power outages, and wildfires wasn't enough, the strong winds will also lead to a high risk for rip currents off beaches up and down the state's coastline. A rip current is a swift current of water that pulls away from the beach, generated by waves that hit the beach head-on.

Rip currents are dangerous not because they suck you underwater—that's just made-for-TV dramatics—but because they quickly pull you away from the coastline. The vast majority of injuries and deaths in rip currents are caused by the victim panicking or quickly becoming exhausted trying to swim against the current to get back to shore. 

The best practice, of course, is to avoid going in the ocean when there's a risk for rip currents. If you ever find yourself caught in a rip current, tread water and calmly signal for help. If you're not a strong swimmer, tread water until help arrives or the rip current releases you so you can paddle back to shore. It will eventually release you. If you're able to swim, don't try to swim against the current—it's too strong. You need to swim parallel to the coastline until you're out of the current, and then swim back to the beach.

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I graduated from the University of South Alabama in 2014 with a degree in political science and a minor in meteorology. I contribute to The Weather Network as a digital writer, and I've written for Forbes, the Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang, Popular Science, Mental Floss, and Gawker's The Vane. My latest book, The Skies Above, is now available. My first book, The Extreme Weather Survival Manual, arrived in October 2015.