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High winds topple trees and power lines, stoking fires in California

LA Times logo LA Times 1/22/2022 Alex Wigglesworth
Ivette Crenshaw stands next to her car, which was crushed under a fallen tree due to strong winds in Upland on Saturday. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times) © Provided by LA Times Ivette Crenshaw stands next to her car, which was crushed under a fallen tree due to strong winds in Upland on Saturday. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Powerful offshore winds knocked down trees and power lines around Southern California overnight while fanning brush fires in Big Sur and Sonoma County.

In Los Angeles County, where a high-wind warning was in effect until 3 p.m. Saturday, gusts of up to 89 mph were recorded at Mt. Lukens in the San Gabriel Mountains, said Mike Wofford, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard.

Pictures shared on social media showed fallen power lines in foothill areas like Altadena. Toppled trees smashed into houses in Monrovia, Ontario and Upland, crushed cars in Claremont and blocked a portion of Pacific Coast Highway west of Heathercliff Road in Malibu.

Southern California Edison reported 92 outages affecting 24,554 customers in its service area as of 10 a.m. About 20,298 of those customers were in Los Angeles County.

As of 3:30 p.m., about 70,000 customers were experiencing wind-related outages, said media relations advisor Gabriela Ornelas.

“The winds can topple power lines or send debris flying in the air so we urge customers to exercise as much caution as possible,” she said.

All downed power lines should be assumed to be energized, and people should never approach them, she said.

Some outages could be prolonged because of extensive damage, Ornelas said, and restoration times were uncertain as of 5:45 p.m.

"Customers can rest assured crews are in the field, and we are working as quickly as we can to restore their power," she said.

The winds prompted the South Coast Air Quality Management District to issue a dust advisory that was in effect from noon Saturday through noon Sunday. The worst air quality was expected Saturday in the Inland Empire and Coachella valleys, regulators said.

Those in areas affected by high levels of windblown dust were advised to remain indoors with windows and doors closed, and to avoid vigorous physical activity.

Downed trees and power lines were also recorded across the Bay Area, including in Oakland and Berkeley. The Weather Service extended a high-wind warning for the North Bay mountains until 4 p.m. Sunday.

In Sonoma County, a gust of 96 mph was recorded at a weather station in Healdsburg Hills, to the east of Geyser Peak, where a brush fire broke out around 1 a.m. The fire was contained at about 1.4 acres several hours later. There was no word on its cause.

In the Big Sur area, winds were breezy, with occasional gusts of 20 to 30 mph, when a brush fire started in Palo Colorado Canyon on Friday night, said Brooke Bingaman, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Monterey. Offshore winds overnight caused the fire to move from the northeast to the southwest toward the coast, she said.

By Saturday morning, the Colorado fire had grown to 1,500 acres, crossed Highway 1 and forced people from their homes. About 500 people had been told to evacuate, said Cecile Juliette, a public information officer with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The American Red Cross opened a shelter at Carmel Middle School. Highway 1 was closed from Andrew Molera State Park in the Big Sur area to the Granite Canyon Bridge in Carmel-by-the-Sea, with no estimate for reopening.

The cause of the fire was under investigation. One building, a yurt, was confirmed to be damaged as of Saturday afternoon, Juliette said. No injuries had been reported.

About 120 firefighters were battling the fire, which drew a large mutual aid response that included strike teams from multiple Cal Fire units. Two air tankers and two helicopters were attacking the blaze from the sky.

"It is very unforgiving terrain," Juliette said. "It’s incredibly steep and wooded, there are large trees including lots of redwood, lots of large brush. Lots of steep drainages, very hard to access."

She attributed the fire's rapid spread to poor overnight humidity recovery, with a lack of coastal fog, plus gusty offshore winds that dried out vegetation.

"It is very unusual to have a fire of this size in January so close to the coast in this area," she said.

Although January fires are not unheard of in California, they are typically associated with a drier winter, whereas this one came after a series of wet storms, with fuel moistures in the area normal for January, Bingaman said.

“This fire is a little unusual given that we had the wet atmospheric river in October and then again in December,” she said.

It’s possible the long-term, climate change-supercharged drought that continues to plague the region means that relatively recent rains and cooler winter weather are no longer sufficient to keep fires from growing, she said.

“Much of the West has been in various levels of extreme to exceptional drought for the past few years,” she said. “This is something the fire community will look into by looking at the fuels more closely in that area.”

Despite the rain that fell a few weeks ago, so-called fine fuels such as grasses, ground litter and twigs were extremely dry, at about 5% humidity, Juliette said.

That's because offshore winds can dry out vegetation "down to nothing in no time at all," said Capt. Jesse Barnes of Cal Fire.

The fire was burning in the scar of the 2016 Soberanes fire, he said. Unlike the Soberanes fire, which featured tall, rolling flames, the flame lengths of the Colorado fire were averaging only about three to four feet because there was nothing to carry the fire up into the trees, he said.

At the same time, the fire history meant there was plenty to burn, he said.

"If you think of all the dead and dying stuff that was in there from the fire, there’s a bunch of fuel loading in there," he said. "All those trees that didn’t burn up, all those big trees on the ground, it’s all just dry fuels for it to burn up, unfortunately."

Winds were expected to remain lighter in the area throughout the day Saturday, ranging from 5 to 10 mph with gusts of 12 to 15 mph, Bingaman said. The calmer conditions were helping the firefight. By Saturday night, the fire had shrunk to 1,050 acres and was 20% contained.

“This is a good reminder that folks should continue to always be alert and prepared for the possibility of wildfires out West, especially when we are looking at offshore winds that can enhance them,” she said.

Fire officials also described the blaze as yet another indication of the constant fire risk that has become the state's new normal.

"We at Cal Fire are trying to get away from calling it a fire season," Juliette said. "It just doesn't make sense anymore to call it a fire season when we get big fires like this year round. We are really calling it a fire year at this point."

Times staff writer Liam Dillon contributed to this story.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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