How the Santa Ana Winds Help Wildfires Spread

The Santa Ana winds are notorious for exacerbating wildfires in southern California.

These strong winds blow warm, dry air across the region at different times of the year, but mainly occur in the late autumn. They form when a large pressure difference builds up between the Great Basin – a desert that covers most of Nevada and parts of Utah – and the coastal region around Los Angeles. This pressure gradient funnels air downhill and through the passes of the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains toward the Pacific. Squeezing through these narrow canyons, the wind is forced to speed up. The Santa Anas, according to the NWS, can easily exceed 40 mph.

Originating in the high desert, the air starts off cool and dry. But as it travels downslope, the air compresses and warms. In fact, it warms about 5°F for every 1000 feet it descends. This dries out the region’s vegetation, leaving it susceptible to any type of spark. The fast-moving winds then fan the flames of any wildfires that ignite.

The Santa Ana winds are named for Santa Ana Canyon in Orange County, CA.

Credit: NOAA/NWS

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About Melissa Fleming

Melissa Fleming is an environmental communicator working at the intersection of art and science. She is passionate about exploring, learning, and sharing information about the natural world. She has presented her interdisciplinary work in a variety of mediums at venues and conferences around the world.