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The worst wildfire weather yet: Red flag warnings, expected outages start Sunday

Sacramento Bee logo Sacramento Bee 10/25/2020 Molly Burke, Michael McGough, and Dale Kasler, The Sacramento Bee

A state already charred and worn ragged by the worst fire year in its history now faces its greatest threat: late October.

The most extreme fire danger of 2020 has California on high alert, as severe winds that could reach 70 mph in some places are expected to create dangerous conditions from the northern Sacramento Valley and along the Sierra foothills, to the Bay Area south to Los Angeles.

Ferocious offshore gusts — the Diablo and the Santa Ana winds — mixed with a typical late summer warm spike and bone-dry vegetation are a recipe for devastation, an army of state firefighters, federal forecasts and climate experts warned.

And it begins Sunday.

Cal Fire says it is bracing for conditions similar to those in 2017, when a series of massive wildfires destroyed thousands of homes and killed dozens of people in the North Bay.

Most of Northern California, including the hillsides north of Sacramento and every county ringing the bay but San Francisco, are under red flag warnings for the likelihood of extreme winds and low humidity. Nearly a million residents could lose power as the utility attempts to lessen the risk of its equipment sparking wind-swept conflagrations.

In a year of superlatives, officials suggest what’s in store could be the worst of the worst.

“This is definitely a much stronger wind event than we have seen in the past. In fact, these conditions we haven’t seen this year,” Daniel Berlant, the assistant deputy director of Cal Fire, said in a video from the Cal Fire Information Center.

Beginning on Sunday, winds ranging from 40 to 50 mph are expected across Northern California, ranging from Redding all the way to Yosemite. On ridges, gaps and canyons, gusts of wind could end up exceeding 70 mph.

Throughout the day and into Monday, low humidity will contribute to the critical weather, allowing for potentially rapid spread of flames. Extremely poor overnight recoveries will contribute to the red flag warning weather.

The strongest winds are expected to occur on Sunday and Monday, though the red flag warning will likely continue through Tuesday. The Sierras and North Bay are expected to have particularly strong gusts.

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, summing up a detailed forecast report from the weather service’s Bay Area office. “Max winds in hills will be similar, but max winds at lower (elevations) may be stronger and airmass drier than those events.”

The weather service’s 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 report read, 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.”

One of a dozen weather statements and advisories published by the weather service’s Sacramento office alone illustrated the potential for trouble even in places that have already seen wildfire this year.

“Gusty winds could blow around unsecured objects. Downed trees and power lines are possible, especially over recently burned areas. Power outages and difficult driving conditions are possible.”

In another alert, meteorologists said any fire that developed would likely spread rapidly. “Extreme caution should be taken to prevent new fire starts.”

Power outages

A new public safety power shutoff would be the largest of the year, conjuring up memories of the series of massive blackouts PG&E imposed a year ago.

Originally estimated to affect 446,000 homes and businesses across the utility’s vast territory, the latest blackout is expected to start Sunday morning and last through Tuesday, with much of the shutoff occurring in the Sierra foothills and the Bay Area. Even with 72,000 fewer customers affected, the engineered shutoff was expected to stretch across 38 counties.

On Saturday afternoon, PG&E scaled the blackout down by 15 percent as it said forecasts showed a decrease in the likelihood of high winds in places like Santa Rosa, which has seen some of the worst fires in the state for three years. The number of customers affected there, for example, was less than 2,000 after it was originally set to 15,000 homes and businesses.

Residents around the Sacramento region, including about 38,000 in El Dorado County, 17,000 in Placer County, 5,100 in Yuba County and 165 in Yolo County, where among those who faced interruption. Nevada County was preparing for the largest outage, with about 40,500 customers potentially facing the shutoff.

Wildfire damages drove PG&E into bankruptcy in early 2019, following the wine country fires of 2017 and the 2018 Camp Fire, the deadliest in California history. The utility exited bankruptcy this summer but faces enormous pressure to avoid causing more wildfires.

Last fall it was blamed for the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County, which was ignited by a transmission line that remained active even while that area was under a public safety blackout. The company has told investors that liabilities from Kincade could reach $600 million.

It will be the fifth wildfire safety outage this year by PG&E — including a two-day interruption for 31,000 homes and businesses that ended late Friday.

“We’re seeing four extremes in the weather for this potential PSPS event: extremely high winds, extremely low humidity, extreme dry fuels due to the hottest average temperatures over the last six months according to records that go back 126 years, and extreme drought across the territory given lack of rainfall,” said PG&E’s Scott Strenfel, head of meteorology and fire science, in a prepared statement.

That lack of rainfall was pronounced: In the rainfall season ending Sept. 30, for example, Sacramento recorded 10.91 inches — 54% of normal. This month, no rain has fallen in Sacramento, Redding or San Francisco, though historical averages would suggest each region should have received more than six-tenths of a inch by Friday.

As a result, two-thirds of California is under drought condition. The northern half of the state is under “moderate drought” conditions or worse, with a wide swath of the Sacramento Valley’s western tier, running from Yolo County north, noted as being under an “extreme drought.”

Cal Fire prepared

Cal Fire has increased staffing and is positioning crews in high-risk areas prior to the red flag warnings to rapidly contain any flames in an effort to stop the spread of new fires.

Berlant said the agency is sending additional personnel, with helicopters and air tankers on hand, all over Northern California, from the Oregon border to the Central Valley, though they are particularly concerned about the strong winds in the North Bay and Sierra. The personnel plan to enact an aggressive initial attack to any flames, using all available equipment to contain the fire before it grows.

While the bulk of the increase in crews has been provided from Cal Fire personnel over the last week, the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services is also coordinating with local fire departments to ready more crews.

This comes as outside hot shot crews, many federally funded, begin to wind down due to funding even as they are called upon in places like Colorado, where recent fires have raged. According to Wildfire Today, about a third of the nation’s 113 Interagency Hotshot Crews, about 35, are available. One Forest Service command team’s projections suggest that number “drops to around 13” in two weeks, Wildfire Today reported.

Cal Fire is advising residents in the northern half of the state to avoid any activities that could cause a spark, including driving any vehicles over dry grass or brush. Residents should also be prepared to see downed trees and power outages. Those in high-risk areas should also have an evacuation plan ready to put in effect at any moment.

City officials in Berkeley warned residents, especially those residing in the Berkeley Hills, to be on high alert and to leave the area prior to the red flag conditions, if possible. The statement from city officials on Friday was especially urgent for those who might have trouble getting out of the area quickly during a fire.

The officials said that Berkeley’s inclusion in PG&E’s power shutoff event Sunday for those living east of Claremont and in Panoramic Hill mark the first time the city has been included this year.

The threats there came as Oakland residents marked the 29th anniversary of the Oakland Hills firestorm that ravaged the area. The late October fire left 25 people dead and destroyed over 3,300 homes, amounting to over $1 billion in damage.

“It was a fire that demonstrates how natural forces may be beyond the control of human intervention and should cause a renewed look at the risk of wildland-urban interface fire disasters,” the Federal Emergency Management Agency said in a report following the devastating 1991 fire.

Climate change and California wildfires

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.

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.

This year, at least 31 people have died and a record-shattering 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. Two weeks after the blaze began in the remote area of Shasta County, Cal Fire investigators took possession of PG&E equipment, the company said in a disclosure to state officials.

And the Glass Fire, back in the North Bay counties of Napa and Sonoma, destroyed more than 1,500 structures, including nearly 650 homes.

As of Saturday, 5,300 personnel were battling 21 wildfires across the state, officials said, with 12 of them being considered major blazes.

The newest blaze, the Pope Fire, has blackened 67 acres in Napa County since Friday afternoon in an area already burned through by the LNU Complex — though fire officials reported it was 50%.

Most of the other blazes have been burning for weeks. In the case of the August Complex, which started Aug. 16 and became the largest fire in state history at 1.03 million acres, crews have been working for more than two months. Containment for the rugged Mendocino National Forest blaze is 40%.

The Creek Fire has burned 358,967 acres of the Sierra National Forest since it began on Sept. 4. The U.S. Forest Service said the fire was 61% contained in an update on Saturday morning. Smoke is continuing to billow from the flames, which are burning in rugged, inaccessible terrain.

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©2020 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)

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