A new mapping tool may help predict when Santa Ana winds will create conditions for a catastrophic fire in Southern California.
It's no secret to San Diego residents that the hot, dry Santa Ana winds that usually arrive in the fall months have the potential to turn small brush fires into raging infernos.
We just need to look to the damage left in the wake of the Cedar Fire in 2003 and the 2007 Witch Creek fire for proof of how Santa Ana winds can increase fire danger.
Now there's a new online tool that could potentially help fire agencies gauge the likelihood of a catastrophic fire.
It's called the Santa Ana Wildfire Threat Index, a classification system that analyzes the fire threat potential of the powerful Santa Ana winds.
The index, unveiled Wednesday, shows whether a fire may grow rapidly to uncontrollably as a result of weather conditions like gusty winds. It can also alert first responders and the public in time to take appropriate action.
Roger Pierce, the director of the National Weather Service in San Diego, said he believes this new tool help the public be better prepared for wildfires.
In fact, a beta version of the tool correctly predicted at least three of the nine fires that burned in one day in San Diego County in May.
The map will stretch from Santa Barbara to San Diego and include a six-day forecast.
When winds are gusting, the maps will be updated with yellow for marginal fire risk, orange for moderate, red for high and purple for extreme.
Clicking on an area will yield a full forecast, as well as advisories about how to prepare for a possible conflagration. Users also can find the locations of fires already burning and live readings from weather stations.
The classification system is based on 30 years of historical Southern California weather data.
It has four levels, ranging from "Marginal" to "Extreme" and will include tips for homeowners like charging cell phones, keeping a full gas tank, studying evacuation routes and making contingency plans for pets.
"I asked my team to come up with something similar to the categories to rate hurricanes," says Dave Geier, Vice President of Electric Transmission and System Engineering at San Diego Gas & Electric.
The development of the index was a collaboration among San Diego Gas & Electric, UCLA, and the U.S. Forest Service, which was already working on a categorization system for fires and the Santa Ana winds.
The threat index includes four levels -- marginal suggests fires may grow rapidly. An "Extreme" rating means fires could burn very intensely.
For more information, visit: santaanawildfirethreat.com.