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Residents of California Brace For Another Round of Fires

By Duke Helfand, Matea Gold and Eric Malnic
Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES

Residents throughout Malibu and San Diego County who escaped the worst of this week's wildfires turned wearily Thursday to dealing with the blazes' secondary effects: the mess.

But even while homeowners swept up mounds of gray ash and hosed down hundreds of blackened windows from Round 1 of the 1996 Southern California fires, nervous officials began reviewing plans for a possible Round 2 this weekend, when wind gusts could reach as high as 100 mph beneath some canyons and mountain ridges.

Such winds - capable of whipping small blazes into firestorms and hurling incendiary embers as far as two miles - would be stronger than anything recorded during the catastrophic fires in the fall of 1993 and almost as strong as those measured during the record readings taken above Pasadena in 1983.

"We are extremely worried about this weekend," said Rich Hawkins, a division chief with the U.S. Forest Service, who noted that the devastating 1993 fires came in two waves. "We think there'll be trouble on the existing fires when these winds kick up on Saturday and we think there'll be a lot of additional fires."

Curtis Brack, a meteorologist with WeatherData Inc., said the extremely strong Santa Ana winds will be a product of two powerful weather systems.

The first is a low pressure system that will bring cool, relatively moist northwest gusts of up to 50 mph to Southern California Friday afternoon. The low pressure system will settle over New Mexico on Saturday.

The second system is a high pressure system that will follow closely behind the first, settling over the Idaho-Utah area on Saturday.

Because winds circulate counter-clockwise around low pressure and clockwise around high pressure, the combined airstreams from both systems will hit Southern California simultaneously, creating the unusually powerful Santa Ana conditions.

Like all Santa Anas - which dehydrate due to compression as they slide down mountain canyons into the coastal valleys - the winds will be very dry. But Brack said that temperatures here will be relatively cool, with highs generally in the 70s throughout the weekend.

That, said Los Angeles County Fire Department forester Martin Gubrud, is about the only break firefighters will get if heavy brush ignites.