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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

California’s Blistering Heat Wave Sparks Wildfires, Worsens Drought

Update 2:24 p.m.: Brush fire forces evacuation of some housing, school at Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base.

Evacuation orders have been lifted and more than 20,000 residents in and around San Diego have returned home, as the wildfire that flared up near the heavily populated Rancho Bernardo area of the city calmed overnight.

Another wildfire, 250 miles north in Santa Barbara County, is challenging firefighters who are battling the blaze through rough terrain, heavy brush and downed power lines.

The wildfires are the latest symptom of the blisteringly hot temperatures and ongoing drought in California, with temperatures expected to hit 100 this week in Los Angeles and Santa Monica, and rise even higher inland. Even breezy San Francisco is expected to surpass it’s 88 degree record, set way back in 1922.

Meteorologist Rick Dickert of Fox 11 Morning News in Los Angeles discusses the forecast and wildfires with Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson.




From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.


I'm Robin Young. It's HERE AND NOW. In a few minutes, they're calling them the water police. We'll speak to one in Sacramento.

HOBSON: But first to Southern California, where a new brushfire just broke out north of San Diego. It has already spread to an area more than 100 acres in size, and caused the evacuation of a school at Camp Pendleton. And it comes just as 20,000 San Diego area residents were returning home after being evacuated because of another wildfire. And we may see more fire activity in the days ahead in Southern California because of record-breaking heat that is expected across the area.

Rick Dickert is a meteorologist with FOX 11 in Los Angeles. And Rick, tell us about this heat.

RICK DICKERT: A hundred and one degrees Jeremy: That is the forecast high for downtown Los Angeles today. Typically, during the month of May, we get the cooling effect of the ocean. We call it the May Gray. We start overcast with the low clouds and the fog. That keeps temperatures in check. The average high temperature for downtown Los Angeles is 74 degrees today. We're forecasting a high of 101.

The record high for today, for May 14th, 96 degrees, set way back in 1890. And if we do reach 101, that'll only be two shy of the hottest May temperature ever recorded since record-keeping began in Los Angeles back in 1877.

HOBSON: And I see that records may be broken all across the state of California.

DICKERT: That's exactly right. We've set records up in San Francisco yesterday. We tied a record down in San Diego. More records will likely fall today here in Southern California, because the temperatures are expected to be even hotter than they were yesterday. This is all because of a strong area of high pressure, a big dome of high pressure, a very warm air mask, and that offshore flow.

Again, typically, we get the cooling effect, that onshore breeze from the ocean. It's the offshore flow that produces the intense heat, not because the air comes from the desert, but because of a process calls compressional warming. As the air is forced down our local mountains, it warms up and it dries out. Not only are we left with temperatures in the 90s and triple digits, but also the single-digit relative humidity.

That, combined with the gusty offshore winds, that's what's producing the high fire danger. And we have red flag warnings up for all areas of Southern California. If a fire - a new fire, were to start, if there was that trigger, that fire will spread rapidly, because of those conditions in place.

It's been so hot and so dry, not only during the springtime here, Jeremy, but also back into the winter. For downtown L.A., we've only received 6.08 inches since the start of last rainfall season, which is July 1st, 2013. So while we have been under the influence of high pressure, high and dry warm temperatures, the eastern half of the nation, of course, is coming off one of their worst winters ever.

HOBSON: Yes, I can attest to that. And we should say, you mentioned the drought. The U.S. Drought Monitor now has most of the state of California in either extreme or exceptional drought, which is the highest level on its scale. But it sounds like - over the next couple of days at least - it's going to be very hot for people all across California.

DICKERT: A glimmer of hope, though, Jeremy, in that it is looking more likely that an El Nino will develop later on this summer. That means warmer-than-sea-surface temperatures out over the equatorial Pacific. If that happens, typically here in Southern California and across much of the state, we experience above average rain and snow. Let's hope for that. That's not going to happen until next winter, and that's just a forecast.

Meanwhile, we're going to be enduring temperatures of 100 degrees or above, not only today but into tomorrow, no real relief until this weekend.

HOBSON: Rick Dickert, meteorologist with FOX 11, in Los Angeles. Rick, thanks so much.

DICKERT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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