Power is cut amid fire fears

Strong, dry winds are ‘ most dan­ger­ous’ of the sea­son

Los Angeles Times - - CAL­I­FOR­NIA - By Alex Wig­glesworth

Pa­cific Gas and Elec­tric be­gan cut­ting power to nearly 1 mil­lion peo­ple in North­ern and Cen­tral Cal­i­for­nia on Sun­day amid what fore­cast­ers de­scribed as the most dan­ger­ous fire weather of the sea­son.

The util­ity in­sti­tutes the “pub­lic safety power shut­offs” ahead of cer­tain weather con­di­tions out of con­cern that a gust of wind could snap off a tree branch or dam­age a piece of equip­ment, cre­at­ing a spark that could ig­nite dry brush and spread into a wild­fire.

A weather sys­tem is ex­pected to bring strong, dry, north- north­east winds through the moun­tain passes up and down Cal­i­for­nia — winds re­ferred to as Di­ab­los in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia and Santa Anas in the south­ern part of the state.

Winds started to pick up in some north­ern ar­eas Sun­day af­ter­noon and were ex­pected to be­come most wide­spread and in­tense

overnight into Mon­day, though crit­i­cal con­di­tions were ex­pected to last well into Tues­day.

“It’s def­i­nitely the strong­est wind event of this f ire sea­son and prob­a­bly the low­est hu­mid­ity as well,” said Duane Dykema, a me­te­o­rol­o­gist with the Na­tional Weather Ser­vice in Mon­terey. “So over­all, th­ese are the most dan­ger­ous and crit­i­cal con­di­tions we’ve seen this fire sea­son.”

By Sun­day evening, PG& E had shut off power to about 225,000 cus­tomers and planned to cut elec­tric­ity to roughly 136,000 more through the night, util­ity rep­re­sen­ta­tives said. That amounts to more than 900,000 peo­ple, as­sum­ing that each cus­tomer ac­count rep­re­sents two to three peo­ple.

Shut­offs were ex­pected to con­tinue through Mon­day into the late evening.

PG& E ini­tially said it might cut power to more than 460,000 cus­tomers, or more than 1.1 mil­lion peo­ple, but later said fa­vor­able changes in the weather fore­cast en­abled it to avoid some shut­offs. The num­ber of cus­tomers who were to lose power in Alameda County, for ex­am­ple, was re­duced by more than half, from a pro­jected 39,401 on Satur­day to 16,329 on Sun­day.

Power is ex­pected to be re­stored within 12 hours af­ter the winds sub­side be­tween Mon­day and Tues­day morn­ing, PG& E said.

The util­ity said Ne­vada County would have the most cus­tomers with out­ages, 40,246, fol­lowed by El Do­rado County, 38,462; Tuolumne, 30,327; Shasta, 24,746; and Sonoma, 23,464.

PG& E’s equip­ment has been blamed for start­ing some of the worst wild­fires in state his­tory, in­clud­ing the 2018 Camp f ire, which led to the util­ity plead­ing guilty to 84 counts of in­vol­un­tary man­slaugh­ter.

PG& E has also agreed to pay bil­lions of dol­lars to set­tle dam­age claims stem­ming from a se­ries of deadly f ires sparked by its power lines from 2015 to 2018.

Most re­cently, PG& E said Cal­i­for­nia in­ves­ti­ga­tors were look­ing at its equip­ment as a pos­si­ble cause of the Zogg f ire, which started last month in Shasta County, killing four peo­ple and burn­ing more than 56,000 acres in the Sierra Ne­vada Moun­tains.

The Na­tional Weather Ser­vice has is­sued red f lag warn­ings for large swaths of Cal­i­for­nia, in­clud­ing all of Los An­ge­les and Ven­tura coun­ties ex­cept for the An­te­lope Val­ley, as well as the en­tire Bay Area. The ad­vi­sory means fore­cast­ers have high con­fi­dence that dan­ger­ous f ire con­di­tions will be in place.

The red f lag warn­ings ex­pire Tues­day af­ter­noon in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia and Tues­day morn­ing in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia, al­though they might be ex­tended to the af­ter­noon in the north, the weather ser­vice said.

Winds picked up Sun­day af­ter­noon in the North Bay Moun­tains above 2,000 feet, with gusts of 30 mph to 40 mph, Dykema said. They were ex­pected to in­ten­sify through the af­ter­noon and evening and peak overnight into Mon­day, with gusts of up to 70 mph pos­si­ble in moun­tain­ous ar­eas.

A much drier air mass was also mov­ing in. Al­though the Bay Area recorded rel­a­tive hu­mid­ity of about 100% Sun­day morn­ing, the winds were ex­pected to cause that value to plum­met through­out the af­ter­noon and overnight, when hu­mid­ity val­ues usu­ally in­crease, Dykema said.

“By to­mor­row, we’ll see rel­a­tive hu­mid­ity in the sin­gle dig­its, be­tween 5% and 10%, which is ex­tremely low,” he said.

Fore­cast­ers say the weather shift is a re­sult of a cold low- pres­sure sys­tem high in the at­mos­phere that’s mov­ing down into the Great Basin, caus­ing a change in air pres­sure that gen­er­ates winds.

“It’s kind of the typ­i­cal weather setup that pro­duces th­ese types of events in the au­tumn months,” Dykema said.

Un­like on­shore winds, which bring in mois­ture as they blow from the ocean over the land, Di­ablo and Santa Ana winds orig­i­nate in­land, gain­ing speed, warm­ing up and dry­ing out as they move from higher to lower el­e­va­tions and squeeze through nar­row canyons and passes.

In South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, the winds were ex­pected to pick up late Sun­day night in the moun­tains and spread down to the val­leys and coast in the pre- dawn hours, blow­ing most strongly be­tween 4 a. m. and noon Mon­day, said Joe Si­rard, me­te­o­rol­o­gist with the Na­tional Weather Ser­vice in Ox­nard. Another round of winds was ex­pected Mon­day night into Tues­day, he said.

Iso­lated gusts of up to 80 mph were pos­si­ble in moun­tain ar­eas, and gusts of 50 mph to 60 mph were ex­pected in val­ley and coastal ar­eas, he said.

“So if any wild­fires do break out, there could be a rapid rate of spread and down­wind spot­ting for a sig­nif­i­cant dis­tance,” Si­rard said. “It could spread very rapidly and be ex­cep­tion­ally dan­ger­ous to con­trol.”

The state has al­ready seen an early start to a record- break­ing fire sea­son, with more than 4 mil­lion acres burned, 31 peo­ple killed and more than 8,200 struc­tures de­stroyed over the last three months.

Pre­vi­ously, Cal­i­for­nia’s worst year of f ire was 2018, when more than 1.8 mil­lion acres burned and more than 100 peo­ple were killed, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional In­ter­a­gency Co­or­di­na­tion Cen­ter.

Light­ning in Au­gust ig­nited many of Cal­i­for­nia’s big­gest blazes, but sci­en­tists say cli­mate change was also a fac­tor. It was the hottest Au­gust on record in the state, and trees and brush were al­ready ab­nor­mally com­bustible af­ter much of the state saw ex­cep­tion­ally dry con­di­tions last win­ter.

The winds fore­cast to sweep through the re­gion could take down tree limbs and power lines and af­fect travel on high­ways, es­pe­cially for those in high- pro­file ve­hi­cles, Si­rard said.

“It’s by far the strong­est Santa Ana event we’ve had in 2020,” he said.

Peo­ple are cau­tioned to avoid any ac­tiv­ity that could spark a fire, and those in fire­prone ar­eas are ad­vised to as­sem­ble emer­gency sup­ply kits and fa­mil­iar­ize them­selves with evac­u­a­tion routes.

Tem­per­a­tures will re­main cool through the wind event, with highs in the 70s along the coastal plain, Si­rard said.

In fact, the cold, dry air mass and clear skies mean wind- shel­tered ar­eas will be­come chilly at night, with a freeze watch in ef­fect from late Sun­day through Mon­day morn­ing for the An­te­lope Val­ley, where tem­per­a­tures could drop be­low 26 de­grees. By Tues­day morn­ing, tem­per­a­tures there could pos­si­bly fall into the teens, Si­rard said.

“Peo­ple that have sen­si­tive plants should take steps now to pro­tect the ten­der plants from the cold,” he said.

‘ Over­all, th­ese are the most dan­ger­ous and crit­i­cal con­di­tions we’ve seen this fire sea­son.’ — Duane Dykema, Na­tional Weather Ser­vice

Noah Berger As­so­ci­ated Press

PG& E cut power in down­town Sonoma, Calif., above, in 2019. This week, Di­ablo and Santa Ana winds are ex­pected to con­trib­ute to ex­treme f ire con­di­tions.

Rich Pe­dron­celli As­so­ci­ated Press

A WORKER for Pa­cific Gas and Elec­tric re­pairs a power line in f ire- rav­aged Par­adise, Calif. The util­ity shuts off power out of con­cern that wind could dam­age equip­ment, cre­at­ing a spark that could spread into a wild­fire.

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