Cali's Category 5 Hurricane: The Firestorm

SAN FRANCISCO - It's fire season in California, but this is one of the worst. Entire neighborhoods have been wiped out. Flattened. It looks like a Category 5 hurricane smashed some parts of Sonoma County, just north of San Francisco, as if a driving storm surge pushed down anything standing. Others suggest this damage looks like a war zone.

Santa Rosa saw some of the worst fire damage, when extremely dry conditions combined with downsloping, ultra-dry and warm, "Diablo winds", drove gusts to 70mph and pushed fiery embers and ash for miles ahead of the fire line. At least 10 people died when they were unable to escape their neighborhoods in the middle of the night -- given only a few minutes to pack the essentials and make a run for it, if they were able. Considering this element of surprise, fires like this are far worse than hurricanes. With a hurricane, those about to be impacted typically get a several days to at week's warning. So far, nearly 1,500 structures (homes/businesses) have been lost.

Sonoma County was hard hit, as was Napa. These names are familiar to many because they're famously known as wine country. This is where a huge portion of America's Cabernet, Marlot, Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay and sparkling varieties originate. Needless to say, there will could be supply impacts and/or interruptions, which are yet unknown. 

These events are called, "fire storms" in part because they make their own weather -- their own winds -- which further perpetuate the burning and spread of flames much farther than other wildfires. The worst and most deadly of these types of natural disasters happened 26 years ago, in 1991, when the hills outside of Oakland and Berkeley (just east of San Francisco) burned wildly, killing 25 people while entire streets were charred to their foundations. The losses then, to homes/buildings numbered well over 3,000.

This week's fire was so big, it was easily spotted from 22,000 miles high, by a weather satellite orbiting our Earth. From the perch of GOES-16, NOAA's newest weather satellite, entire counties seem illuminated in yellows and oranges, traveling from inland toward the coast.

So what is this, Diablo Wind? It's simply another name for the same phenomena which affects southern California's LA basin, known as, "The Santa Ana wind". Winds blowing down-hill from the high peaks of the Sierra Nevada (part of the Rocky Mountains) compresses as it descends, heating up, drying out and accelerating. If there's a, "spark", all hell can break loose. Fires can initiate from people flicking cigarettes out of car windows, accidental incidents of campfires getting out of control, or even arson. When the hot gusts pick up the fire, a raging inferno can result. If homes are in the way they are often claimed, as fire fighters can't possibly respond to hundreds, if not thousands of calls simultaneously. 

 


For Californians, wildfires (and earthquakes) are one of several risks to living in the beautiful, Mediterranean climate so much of the Golden State enjoys. If it wasn't for those towering mountains (formed by earthquakes over the eons, as the Pacific tectonic plate subducts into the North American continent), the annual arctic,  wintertime surges from Canada would destroy the grapes, palm trees and agricultural economy of the Central Valley.

We Houstonians are all too familiar with natural disaster and our hearts certainly go out to all impacted by these fires. 

-Brooks Garner
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© 2017 KHOU-TV


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