The Diablo and Santa Ana winds are notorious for exacerbating wildfires in northern and southern California, respectively.
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 large desert that covers most of Nevada – and the California coast. This pressure gradient funnels air downhill and through mountain canyons and passes toward the Pacific. Squeezing through these narrow spaces, the wind is forced to speed up. According to the NWS, they 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.
These infamous zephyrs are named for the places from which they tend to blow. The Santa Ana Winds are named for Santa Ana Canyon in Orange County. The Diablo Winds take their moniker from Mount Diablo, which sits northeast of San Francisco.