A new book contends wildfires are completely natural to San Diego and it is people who are the unnatural component.
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For millions of years, wildfires burned their way through San Diego County once or twice a century. Now, they erupt far more often.
"The only thing that's changed in all this time is people," says U.S. Geological Survey fire ecologist Jon Keeley. "Fire is not a problem for these landscapes; it's only a problem when people are on the landscape."
In Keeley's new book, "Fire in Mediterranean Ecosystems," he does not suggest people should not live in San Diego. He feels San Diegans should better understand the area's Mediterranean-type climate that powers massive wildfires. (Click here for a profile on Keeley)
"Just about every single year we are vulnerable to a big fire like that," said Keeley.
San Diego Gas & Electric meteorologists Brian D'Agostino and Steven Vanderburg are gathering never-before-seen information on the one thing that makes San Diego fires so fast and furious -- Santa Ana winds.
"No two Santa Ana wind events behave exactly the same way," said D'Agostino. "We're just at the tip of the iceberg as to what we're going to learn."
One thing they've learned is just how strong these winds are.
During a Santa Ana event last December, for example, wind speeds were measured in a way not seen before. They saw gusts as high as 65 mph in the backcountry from Highway 78 to Interstate 8. At those speeds, it's critical for SDG&E to be proactive before tree limbs snap and downed power lines cause sparks.
"The firefighters in the field that are trying to protect all of us from this, they have all of this data," said D'Agostino.
Firefighters could have used the data during the 2007 wildfires that killed nine people. In 2008, SDG&E started installing sophisticated weather stations around the county, and there are 128 of those stations so far. (To see a map of the weather stations around the county click here.)
"Now we have installed the densest weather network that exists not only here in San Diego but anywhere in the country," explained D'Agostino.
The stations are spread out but concentrated in high-risk areas. So how does all the info they're gathering help protect people and property?
"Now we know every 10 minutes what's going on across the entire back country," said Vanderburg.
That means the stations send data six times more often than other weather agencies. (Track real-time data by going to www.sdgeweather.com. Click on "Enhanced Site" to open other viewing options.)
The Santa Ana winds actually come from the desert cool. They heat up and speed up as they sweep down the mountain ridges.
"We would not have Santa Ana winds without the terrain we have," said Vanderburg.
That irregular terrain is also why Santa Ana winds hit some locations nearly all the time and other areas only some of the time.
While dry brush can't be eliminated and climate can't be controlled, tracking the wind means residents and authorities can react more quickly, helping stop the flames before they grow into the devastating wildfires seen in the past. Could it potentially save lives?
"It absolutely could save lives," said D'Agostino.
This new data is being used to kick off one of the largest fire weather research projects ever in Southern California.
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