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Extreme wind bound for California similar to conditions that fanned state's worst fires

Sacramento Bee logoSacramento Bee 10/24/2020 Michael McGough, The Sacramento Bee

Intense concern is developing ahead of an “extreme” wind event forecast to begin Sunday in Northern California, now expected to bring freeway-level gusts to regions already brutalized this year by wildfires.

The National Weather Service says “widespread extreme fire weather conditions” Sunday and Monday will include 70-mph gusts in some high-elevation areas, including hills in the North Bay and East Bay.

Those vicious winds will be joined by gusts that could hit 40 to 50 mph at lower elevations across the Bay Area, the Sacramento Valley and the Sierra Nevada foothills. The region will also see “very low daytime humidity with extremely poor overnight recoveries,” the NWS Sacramento office said in a forecast infographic.

Daniel Swain, a UCLA climate scientist who studies extreme weather events, says the looming windstorm is expected to be similar or perhaps even worse in intensity than those associated with two major North Bay wildfires in recent Octobers: the Kincade Fire, California’s largest blaze of 2019; and the 2017 Wine Country fires, which killed dozens of people.

“Key message: event resembles Oct 2019/2017 events,” Swain tweeted Friday morning, summing up a detailed forecast report from the NWS Bay Area office. “Max winds in hills will be similar, but max winds at lower (elevations) may be *stronger* & airmass *drier* than those events.”

The NWS forecast discussion report that Swain shared also suggests potential for devastating wildfire activity, comparing conditions to those that led the state’s deadliest fire ever to erupt.

“There will be no marine layer so even the valleys will be bone dry,” the NWS report reads, in part. “And as has been noted throughout the week this will all occur on top of record dry fuels. So yes it has similarities to the 2018 Camp Fire as well.”

The expected conditions are virtually certain to trigger a red flag warning. Those warnings, the highest alert issued by the agency for critical wildfire weather, typically come about 24 to 36 hours before the start of a weather event.

A fire weather watch, one step below a red flag warning, has already been issued for the entire Sacramento Valley, northern San Joaquin Valley and northern foothills for Sunday morning through Tuesday afternoon. A high wind watch is in place Sunday afternoon through Monday morning for the entire San Francisco Bay Area.

An existing red flag warning that started Wednesday, in place for parts of the Bay Area, the northern Sacramento Valley and a stretch of the foothills, was set to end at 5 p.m. Friday.

Forecasts show a one-day reprieve of calm conditions Saturday. Much cooler weather is also coming to the capital region, which has reached the 90s an astounding 14 times this month. Sacramento’s forecast shows a high of 73 degrees Saturday and Sunday, staying in the 70s through at least Thursday. Overnight lows could drop into the 40s.

Will PG&E cut power yet again?

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. says on its website that it is monitoring the weather for another potential round of “public safety power shutoff” outages that would likely begin Sunday in response to the extreme wind event in the forecast. PG&E says it will provide more information by 8 p.m. Friday.

As of midday Friday, the utility company was still in the process of restoring power to thousands of customers, after shutting it off for 31,000 homes and businesses across seven Northern California counties beginning Wednesday. PG&E said it had restored power to 74% of those customers by Thursday evening, and should have “essentially all” affected customers back in service by 10 p.m. Friday.

Another shutoff Sunday would be PG&E’s fifth in the past six weeks.

The NWS is also warning that winds will be strong enough to down trees, branches and power lines, meaning residents should be prepared for unplanned outages as well.

Climate change and California wildfires

California is already amid a devastating, record-setting wildfire season in which at least 31 people have died and well over 4 million acres have burned, according to Cal Fire.

Dozens of major fires and hundreds of smaller ones sparked in a freak mid-August thunderstorm that dropped lightning strikes across the north half of the state. In the fire-prone and vulnerable North Bay, the LNU Lightning Complex killed six people and burned 363,000 acres before containment, now standing as the fourth-biggest fire in California’s recorded history. In the East Bay, the SCU Lightning Complex charred 396,000 acres, making it the state’s third-biggest blaze ever.

In early September, a zone of the North Complex burning in Plumas County flared wildly due to severe winds, killing 15 people as it pushed west into communities north of Lake Oroville.

Near the end of September, the Zogg Fire killed four after igniting in Shasta County, west of Redding. And the Glass Fire, back in the North Bay counties of Napa and Sonoma, destroyed more than 1,500 structures, including nearly 650 homes.

Northern California has already had numerous red flag warnings this month, including two earlier this week. Neither of those resulted in any major new starts or significant flare-ups of existing fires.

Wind alone cannot directly cause a fire to spark, but it can lead one that’s ignited to grow out-of-control rapidly. Gusty weather can also knock down power equipment, an area of recent concern in California.

Wildfires have always been part of life in California. The past four years have brought some of the most destructive and deadliest wildfires in the state’s modern history.

Nearly 180 people have lost their lives since 2017. More than 41,000 structures have been destroyed and nearly 7 million acres have burned. That’s roughly the size of Massachusetts.

Meanwhile, this year’s August was the hottest on record in California. A rare series of lightning storms sparked a series of fires, including the August Complex that has burned nearly 1 million acres, making it by far the largest wildfire in California’s recorded history.

The 2017 wildfire season occurred during the second-hottest year on record in California and included a devastating string of fires in October that killed 44 people and destroyed nearly 9,000 buildings in Napa, Lake, Sonoma, Mendocino, Butte and Solano counties.

The following year was the most destructive and deadliest for wildfires in the state’s history. It included the Camp Fire, which destroyed the town of Paradise and killed 85 people, and the enormous Mendocino Complex.

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