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What Are Santa Ana Winds? All About the Strong Gales Fueling the Southern California Wildfires

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At least one person is dead and thousands of Southern California residents have been forced to evacuate as a string of wildfires wreak havoc on the region, with the largest blaze spreading across more than 65,000 acres of land.

Officials say that the powerful Santa Ana winds have contributed to the disastrous wildfires. And although fires are not typical in Southern California during this time of year, the mix of dry vegetation, too little rain and the massive winds have sparked the blazes — and the Santa Ana winds have been whipping the fires across the region.

The fire is still out of control and structures continue to be threatened throughout the fire area,” officials said in a statement, describing the blaze as a “fast moving, active brush fire.” “Due to the intensity of the fire, crews are having trouble making access and there are multiple reports of structures on fire.”

Three fire firghters were injured in Los Angeles and were taken to a hospital where they were listed in stable condition, the Washington Post reports. One person died in a rollover crash while trying to evacuate the area as thousands attempted to escape in the dark earlier this week, CNN reports.

Mario Tama/Getty

Santa Ana winds have long been a California staple, but what are they exactly? Here’s everything you need to know about the powerful gales:

Why “Santa Ana?”

According to the National Weather Service, the Santa Ana winds are a “weather condition in which strong, hot, dust-bearing winds descend to the Pacific Coast around Los Angeles from inland desert regions.”

The winds have been named such because they often pass through Santa Ana Canyon, located east of Los Angeles, CNN reports.

How Do They Form?

The winds are generated when cold, dry air masses move into the Great Basin, Fox News reports. Air flowing from the high-pressure region pours into Southern California metropolitan areas.

The Santa Ana winds push back the cool air of the Pacific Ocean but are usually warmed by compression and speed, according to Fox.

When Do They Usually Occur?

The Santa Ana winds are most common in the fall but can occur during any time of year, the Associated Press reports. The winds often reach fierce speeds as they squeeze through canyons and mountain passes, the AP reports.

Although they are usually warm, the Santa Ana winds develop when the desert is cold, according to the UCLA Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences. They are most common from October through March.

Are There Any Dangers?

According to the Department, the winds “can cause a great deal of damage.

“The fast, hot winds cause vegetation to dry out, increasing the danger of wildfire,” the Department’s website states. “Once the fires start, the winds fan the flames and hasten their spread.”

The page continues: “The winds tend to make for choppy surf conditions in the Southern California Bight, and often batter the north coast of Santa Catalina Island, including Avalon cove and the island’s airport.”