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Winds topple trees, power lines, sparking fires near Santa Cruz

San Francisco Chronicle logo San Francisco Chronicle 1/20/2021 By J.D. Morris and Vanessa Arredondo

A spate of small but unusual winter wildfires started amid extreme winds around Northern California on Tuesday as the region grappled with a winter that has been sorely lacking in substantial rain and snow.

Around the Santa Cruz Mountains, evacuations were ordered as officials responded to at least five fires that ignited during dry and windy conditions. Many more blazes were reported around the Central Coast, the Bay Area and farther north throughout the morning, some of which were quickly contained, officials said.

Evacuations were ordered Tuesday morning for a fire in the Boulder Creek area off of Highway 9, officials said. Crews were also working to take down a fire that ignited near Stapp Road and Panther Ridge in Boulder Creek.

The Panther Fire, burning on Stapp Road on the east side of Highway 9, was 27 acres and 98% contained as of Tuesday night, Cal Fire said. Santa Cruz County sheriff’s deputies evacuated roughly 20 homes in the area, Cal Fire said.

The Fanning Fire on Fanning Grade Road in Ben Lomond grew to 19 acres and was 95% contained shortly before 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, according to Cal Fire. Evacuations were not ordered.

Winds were expected to die down Tuesday evening, but Cal Fire officials warned on Twitter that if “there are some lingering high wind gusts, this could impact fire behavior.” Officials urged residents to be “prepared, and stay vigilant.”

The fire activity, while modest so far, is alarming for mid-January, when most of Northern California should have had enough precipitation to prevent new blazes from spreading.

But the region is grappling with an extremely arid winter: numerous locations around the northern half of the state have seen less than half to less than a third of their normal precipitation for this time of year, federal data shows. Nearly the entire state is experiencing some level of drought, much of it severe or extreme, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

High-elevation weather stations recorded remarkably high wind speeds throughout Tuesday morning. One sensor, located in Sonoma County at about 3,880 feet in elevation, showed peak wind speeds of 97 mph, according to the weather service. Gusts of about 50 mph or more were still being recorded in the North and East bays shortly before noon.

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. said wind gusts nearing 100 mph were recorded in weather stations across its service area, including a 98-mph gust recorded at the Hell Hole weather station in Placer County. In the Bay Area, gusts exceeding 80 mph were recorded at stations in Contra Costa and Santa Clara counties, as well as at stations in Tuolumne, Kern, and Calaveras counties, PG&E said.

PG&E cut off power to customers in narrow portions of Fresno, Kern, Madera, Mariposa, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Tulare counties. Fewer than 5,500 homes and businesses had been expected to lose power in those places as PG&E sought to prevent wind-damaged power lines from starting major fires. It was the first time the company had ever turned off power because of fire risk in January.

While PG&E spared the Bay Area from fire prevention shut-offs, tens of thousands of customers still lost power because of wind damage to electrical equipment.

The windstorm also impacted the region’s public transit. Trees toppled by gusting winds fell over several sections of BART tracks, the transit agency said, briefly halting service Tuesday morning between the Richmond and El Cerrito Del Norte stations and between Union City and South Hayward stations.

PG&E officials said Tuesday evening that their crews were making repairs, restoring electric service to impacted customers and were using “helicopters to speed up restoration efforts.”

In the Sierra Nevada, officials announced the closure of Yosemite National Park on Tuesday, citing continuing high winds, downed trees, debris and damage to park facilities.

The winds began picking up on Monday night, sparking isolated fires across the region.

In Santa Clara County, officials evacuated homes in the area of Country Club Drive in Milpitas as firefighters battled a vegetation fire amid gusty winds Monday night. Later in the evening, residents were allowed to return but were asked to shelter in place.

In Alameda County, firefighters fought a one-acre blaze in the Altamont Pass area near Livermore, where wind gusts of 26 mph were recorded.

In Sonoma County, firefighters battled a 5- to 10-acre vegetation fire near Geyserville as winds belted the area.

In Santa Rosa, fire department officials said they had multiple incidents, including “tree in the power lines, tree down into a home’s guest cottage, roof blown off of a carport and a fence blown into a tree.”

San Francisco Chronicle staff writers Suzanne Espinosa Solis and Lauren Hernández contributed to this report.

J.D. Morris and Vanessa Arredondo are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: jd.morris@sfchronicle.com, vanessa.arredondo@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @thejdmorris, @v_anana

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