Tropical Storm Kay could bring a year's worth of rain to drought-stricken SoCal in the next hours

Friday, September 9, 2022
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A long and brutal heat wave marked by fast-spreading brush fires is finally coming to an end in Southern California - only to be replaced by heavy rain and possible flash flooding.

Fierce winds -- some gusting at more than 100 mph -- have begun battering Southern California, driving up already-sweltering temperatures Friday as a tropical storm that could drop a year's worth of rain pushes in and threatens dangerous flash flooding across the drought-stricken state.

The extreme weather comes as Tropical Storm Kay trudges northward after making landfall Thursday in Mexico as a Category 1 hurricane. While Kay has weakened to a tropical storm, it is still packing sustained winds of 45 mph. And it is enhancing winds through mountain terrain -- similar to a Santa Ana wind event -- to much stronger gusts, including a 109-mph blast Friday at Cuyamaca Peak in the San Diego Mountains, the National Weather Service reported.

As Kay's rotating winds push warm, dry air from the east, much of Southern and Central California -- already baking through a climate crisis-fueled heat wave -- will stay under excessive heat warnings through 8 p.m. Friday. And concern is growing that erratic, strong winds will spread already-burning wildfires, including the Fairview Fire, which has killed two people and exploded in size this week, forcing evacuations as it's burned more than 27,000 acres.

"With the really strong winds, we could continue to see the fires that are already burning continue to burn and spread before the rain actually gets here," the National Weather Service in San Diego told CNN.

Rain from Kay has begun falling Friday in far Southern California, including San Diego, and far southwest Arizona, including Yuma, as flash flooding risks increase.

While the rain is due by Saturday to quell the crushing heat -- bringing relief to weary residents and power grid operators who'd prepped for rolling outages -- it also could trigger debris flows, especially in places just ravaged by fire. A flash flood warning is in effect in southwestern Imperial County, while flood watches cover over 6 million people across Southern California, including Palm Springs, Riverside and Barstow; southern Nevada, including Las Vegas; and western Arizona, including Yuma, Lake Havasu City and Kingman.

And though the Western U.S. has been plagued for months by drought, getting up to 4 inches of rain in just two days won't deliver the sort of recovery that's needed. Indeed, the Imperial Valley region, home to one of the nation's most productive farm belts and suffering severe drought since early spring, is now bracing for serious damage.

"Imperial Valley farmers are in the middle of preparing their lands for the planting season, so a half an inch to 1 inch of rain will cause damage and delays to their schedule," said Robert Schettler, a spokesperson for the Imperial Irrigation District.

While the damage Kay leaves behind is yet uncertain, the storm is expected to leave in its trail more moderate temperatures as it turns away Saturday night from the US West Coast and pushes out into the Pacific.

Meantime, wildfires also continue to ravage Northern California, while Oregon faces heightened fire danger as similar strong winds from the east blow in from a separate weather system.

High temperature and rain records could fall

With triple-digit temperatures likely continuing Friday for much of California, new high records are expected to be set before Kay's cool-down takes hold.

Weather officials in Los Angeles reported a temperature of 97 degrees Thursday at the Los Angeles International Airport -- beating its previous record for the date of September 8, set in 1984. The city of Paso Robles, California, also beat its record for that date, with 108 degrees; its previous record of 106 was set last year.

Behind the heat, fast, heavy deluges also could rewrite record books. Two to 4 inches is expected over 36 hours on Friday and Saturday at Imperial County Airport, which on average gets 2.38 inches of rain each year. If Imperial receives more than 3 inches of rain, it will make this month its wettest September on record; the previous wettest September was in 1976.

In Palm Springs, which typically sees 4.61 inches of rain annually, 2 to 4 inches are forecast. Three inches at Palm Springs would put this month in the top three wettest Septembers for the city, where the average September rainfall is 0.24 inches.

And Yuma could see 1.5 inches -- which would make 2022 the wettest September since 2009. The city's average September rainfall is 0.68 inches.

Fire woes impact California and Oregon

Though rain no doubt would aid firefighters working to extinguish wildfires, much damage already has been done: California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday declared a state of emergency for three counties over two blazes.

Beyond the Fairview Fire, the Mosquito Fire in Northern California's El Dorado and Placer counties has charred more than 13,700 acres and was 0% contained Thursday night, according to Cal Fire. Evacuation orders were issued for parts of Placer County, and some residents of El Dorado County have been warned to prepare for the possibility of evacuations, officials said.

The blaze, which threatens over 3,600 structures, demonstrated "extreme fire behavior and growth" Thursday and is burning in "extremely difficult terrain," according to Cal Fire.

"Both fires are threatening multiple communities and critical infrastructure, forcing the evacuation of tens of thousands of residents," the governor's office said in a statement.

Oregon, meanwhile, faces strong winds from the east that will increase fire danger across the state due to a weather system separate from Kay.

"A red flag warning ... will be in effect this FRIDAY & SATURDAY, due to the expected strong east winds and low humidity. These conditions can cause rapid spread of fire," the National Weather Service in Portland tweeted.

Wind gusts in the region are expected to range from 25 to 50 mph, according to a tweet from the weather service in Portland.

Utility companies Pacific Power and Portland General Electric announced they may proactively turn off power in some high-risk areas to reduce the risk of fire.

The outages would be implemented "in a limited, high-risk area to help reduce the risk of wildfire and to help protect people, property and the environment," Portland General Electric said in a release. The move could impact about 30,000 customer meters in the Portland and Salem, Oregon, area, the utility said.

About 12,000 Pacific Power customers in Linn, Douglas, Lincoln, Tillamook, Marion and Polk counties have been notified of the potential shut-offs, that provider said in a statement.

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