STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

California's wildfires have now burned more than 600 square miles. They swept through a region from the Mexican border to San Diego and on north of Los Angeles. That's a region that could take you several hours to drive by car. Nearly 2,000 homes and buildings are destroyed. Many more remain in danger, and at least half a million people have evacuated to places like San Diego's Qualcomm field.

Ms. RENEE BUSHY(ph) (Resident): We're from Ramona. We got evacuated, what, two days ago?

INSKEEP: That's Renee Bushy's two sons and three dogs she spent two nights in their SUV at a Wal-Mart parking lot before arriving at the stadium. She says she doesn't know when she'll be able to go home or whether she'll have a home to return to.

Ms. BUSHY: It's a little bit overwhelming. I know the neighbors burned, but from what we've heard, ours made it. We don't know for sure until we see it.

INSKEEP: It's house by house. California's wildfires were fanned by hot, dry winds that moved through the region every fall and winter. Some people call them Santa Ana winds. Other people call them the Devil's Breath.

Since Sunday they've been blowing at near record speeds. And we have more this morning from NPR's John Nielsen.

JOHN NIELSEN: Santa Ana winds begin their lives when masses of cold air form over high desert plateaus in Utah and Nevada. The winds that spin off of those air masses get hotter and dryer and more powerful as they spill down to the southwest through mountain canyons toward the Pacific Ocean.

When the winds blow in moderation, they help keep Southern California pleasant by raising winter air temperatures and blowing air pollution out to sea. But this week the winds have not been blowing in moderation. This week, the air mass has been gigantic and the Santa Anas had been monsters.

Mike Davis is a historian at the University of California at Irvine.

Mr. MIKE DAVIS (Historian, University of California, Irvine): You have this high dry wind rushing into canyons, and literally a blast furnace effect at the other end of the canyon of what happened to Malibu on Sunday when the fire burned all the way to the beach.

NIELSEN: Malibu is one of several towns and cities ravaged by wildfires that have broken out all over Southern California since the weekend. Those fires were fanned by a set of Santa Ana winds that is among the most ferocious measured since the National Weather Service started taking records in the 1930s.

Mr. ERIC BOLDT (Meteorologist, National Weather Service): It's probably right up there in the top five, as far as wind speeds go.

NIELSEN: Eric Boldt is a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard, California. He says Santa Ana wind gusts of more than 100 miles an hour have been recorded this week - the equivalent of a Category 2 hurricane.

Mr. BOLDT: One location, just above Point Mugu Naval Airbase, the peak was 111. And other location up in the mountains was 108 miles per hour. Not every place felt that, obviously, but many areas did see winds of 40 to 60 miles per hour; that's like a tropical storm or Category 1 hurricane.

NIELSEN: Weather experts say they do not know exactly why the recent spate of Santa Ana winds has been so hellish, nor do they know whether more freakish winds and fires will arrive during the coming winter.

But Robert Fovell, an atmospheric scientist with the University of California in Los Angeles, says he has a hunch that the worst has passed.

Mr. ROBERT FOVELL (UCLA): As we go on through the winter, we will still have Santa Anas, but the Santa Anas are typically not as hot and they're not as dry. And as we go through the winter, in a normal winter we'd have rain, and rain increases the plant moisture, so it decreases the fire danger.

NIELSEN: Fovell says the biggest question now is when the big winter rains will come, if they come at all. For more than a year now this region has been mired in a severe drought.

John Nielsen, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: Now, pilotless planes and other high-tech tools are being used to fight the fires in Southern California and you can read about those efforts at npr.org.

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