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Fire Risk Looms Large For San Diego County

The wildfires raging across California this fall are now considered the worst in the state's history. Major fire hasn't damaged the San Diego area this season, but the risk is still very high.

Rural San Diego County

That risk was highlighted Wednesday, when spot fires broke out in Sorrento Valley. Structures were briefly threatened, ABC 10 News reports, but San Diego Fire was able to contain both blazes in a short period, with only about an acre burned.

The fires came at a time of increased Santa Ana winds, which began kicking into high gear Sunday and peaked Tuesday, according to the National Weather Service. High and dry winds were reported all over San Diego County, as strong as 86 mph at Sill Hill, though most reported speeds were in the 60s and 70s mph range.

Santa Ana winds form when high pressure over the intermountain states drives air toward lower pressure zones near the California coast. Along the way, the winds dry out and heat up as they course through the mountains.

To make matters worse, while the worst of the California drought is over, parts of coastal Southern California are still experiencing severe and extreme drought conditions, as defined by the NWS.

“Each passing week without decent rain in the fall leads to added chances of a Santa Ana that may make an ordinary fire that is contained into a fire that we talk about for decades later,” John Abatzoglou, an associate professor of geography at the University of Idaho, told Voice of San Diego.

Areas likely damaged by the Woolsey and Camp fires.

That the San Diego region has escaped a serious wildfire so far is seen as remarkable good luck. 

"The fire danger is really critical, and the winds have been really strong,” National Weather Service forecaster Dan Gregoria told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “So far, we’ve been lucky.”

On Sunday, San Diego Gas & Electric Co. began periodic power shut-offs in parts of Ramona and the backcountry due to risky fire conditions.

Earlier this year, before the start of the traditional fire season, SDGE  installed seven additional weather stations in the Valley Center, Pala and Alpine to watch more closely for wildfires. The utility's weather station network now comprises 177 stations providing information about humidity, wind speed and temperature. 

Along with UC San Diego and the University of Nevada, the utility has placed 15 high-definition cameras on mountaintops overlooking fire-prone areas. The cameras provide live-streaming views and can be operated remotely to pan, tilt or zoom.

California has a long history of major wildfires, but the pattern has changed in recent years. One change, reports Axios, is that blazes can spread so quickly that some fire victims have been found in their cars, having been unable to escape the rapidly approaching disaster.

Also new: Wildfire season has been extended further into the fall, but also starts earlier in the spring. That is, California now has what amounts to a year-round wildfire season.