Monday, August 21, 2023

CA Officials Respond to Tropical Storm Hilary, Ojai quake and Wildfires with the Possibility of More Lightning in the Forecast

Posted By on Mon, Aug 21, 2023 at 1:35 PM

click to enlarge National Guard units aided in rescue efforts in Palm Springs. - OFFICE OF THE GOVERNOR
  • Office of the Governor
  • National Guard units aided in rescue efforts in Palm Springs.
California received a one-two punch from Mother Nature as Tropical Storm Hilary unleashed torrential record rains and flooding across Southern California, and an earthquake struck near Ojai — all during what has historically been the state’s wildfire season. The wild weekend prompted Gov. Gavin Newsom to head south, declaring a storm state of emergency even before crews began struggling to respond across a wide swath of the state.

On Sunday afternoon, the tropical storm made landfall in the northern Baja California peninsula, with wind speeds over 60 miles per hour as it barreled northward across Southern California’s coastal cities and pushed inland, swamping parts of the desert in knee-deep flood waters. Though Hilary had been downgraded from a hurricane, officials early today continued urging residents not to underestimate the damage it could bring — including flash floods, mudslides, thunderstorms, strong winds and power outages. 

The storm is the “wettest tropical cyclone in state history” according to Newsom’s office, and the first tropical storm to hit Southern California in 84 years. The National Weather Service issued what it termed “life threatening” flash flood and tornado warnings, the Navy pulled its ships out of San Diego’s harbor, Death Valley National Park shut down, and public schools in Los Angeles and San Diego announced they would close today, with plans to resume classes tomorrow. 

The state deployed 7,500 personnel in Southern California — including 3,900 Highway Patrol officers and 2,000 Caltrans workers — to aid local communities, and it dispatched resources for swift water rescue teams in high-risk areas.

  • Newsom: “There’s an old ancient curse that loosely is translated to, ‘May you live in interesting times.’ It’s certainly interesting times — tornadoes, lightning strikes, I’ve got CalFire worried about wildfires…. I walked out of the Office of Emergency Services in San Bernardino, check my phone and learned about an earthquake.”

A tropical storm is a rare problem for California, particularly in August. The state has been historically protected from hurricanes because of its cold Pacific Ocean ocean currents, a wind pattern that pushes out major storms from the mainland and a downward air flow. But as The Los Angeles Times explained, “an unusual set of weather patterns” and warm ocean waters (“essentially hurricane fuel”) enabled the tropical storm to take shape. The last time California experienced a tropical cyclone was 1939, when one made landfall near Long Beach and claimed nearly 100 lives on land and at sea.

Tropical Storm Hilary serves as another watery test for Newsom. Earlier this year, when devastating floods upended thousands of Californians, the governor said the state would provide relief to victims who did not qualify for federal emergency relief, namely undocumented residents. Months after his promise of “rapid response,” his office announced $95 million in assistance for those flood victims.

How the state will handle similar cases in the wake of Tropical Storm Hilary remains a question.

Just hours after Hilary made landfall, a 5.1 magnitude earthquake rattled the Ventura County community of Ojai and its nearby region. Though no significant damage was reported, the two simultaneous events prompted internet-goers to dub Sunday a #Hurriquake.

And in a challenge more typical of California in August, on Saturday the 3,000-acre Deep Fire forced residents and resort-goers to evacuate in Trinity County, and the National Weather Service issued a warning in Eureka for elevated fire weather conditions caused by lightning strikes.

The South Fork Complex, comprising four fires and a combined 950 acres burned, with a priority on the Pilot Fire being "to prevent any runs up to the PG&E KV transmission line that supplies electricity to Eureka and surrounding communities on the coast, according to today's update.

"In some ways this is an easier fire to fight as there is no recent fire history to create snags that complicate safety issues for firefighters," the update states.


An in-person community meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 22, at 6 p.m. at the Veteran’s Hall - VFW Post 9546 in Hayfork.

The Six Rivers Forest Complex, with seven fires, has burned 4,435 acres in areas of Hoopa and Orleans and closed portions of Redwood National and State Parks. 

More on the storm: Although a Fox News-televised political debate between Newsom and his conservative political foil, Ron DeSantis, looks less likely to happen, the Florida governor did reach out on Saturday.

  • DeSantis, on X (formerly known as Twitter): “In Florida, we know how challenging storms can be and have significant experience responding in their wake — we stand ready to help the people of California in any way we can.”

Newsom did not immediately respond, but Politico reported that “California officials said they appreciated the offer of support.” Governors routinely offer one another disaster assistance, of course. Yet DeSantis, running for the Republican presidential nomination, no doubt is also aware that this state is home to more than 5 million registered Republican voters (nearly a quarter of the voting populace).

(This is an abridged version of the CalMatters newsletter What Matters with additional information added by the Journal.)

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