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Firefighters contain two winter blazes as winds bear down on Sonoma County

The weekend began with a blustery, sleepless night for many in Sonoma County.

Powerful gusts topping 90 mph bore down on the Mayacamas Mountains from the east, triggering memories of wind-whipped nights that set the stage for the destructive Tubbs, Nuns, Kincade and Glass fires of the past five years.

Early Saturday morning, two small fires ignited high up in the range on the county’s eastern flank. Luckily, the winter weather conditions were not as dire as during the past late-summer and fall infernos, and firefighters contained both blazes by daybreak.

A larger Monterey County wildfire forced hundreds of Big Sur residents to evacuate and forced the closure of Highway 1 Saturday.

The January wildfires were another stark reminder that California has little if any offseason for wildfire any more amid the onslaught of human-caused climate change. Some of the ground torched by flames Saturday was covered in snow or drenched by heavy rain just a month ago.

“There’s a potential for fire any time of the year, and we need everyone to do their part,” said Cal Fire Battalion Chief Marshall Turbeville, who is also chief of the Northern Sonoma County Fire District. Even in the middle of winter, he said, North Bay residents need to stay vigilant to prevent sparking fires and be prepared to evacuate on short notice.

The first 1.5-acre fire ignited before 2 a.m. near the summit of Geyser Peak, threatening radio towers and communications there, according to Cal Fire.

The top of the peak helped shield flames from the most powerful winds blowing offshore, helping firefighters halt the spread of the blaze by 5 a.m., Turbeville said.

“Otherwise, we would have had a scenario similar to the Kincade or Tubbs fires,” he said.

The 2019 Kincade fire, which burned over 78,000 acres and 374 structures, ignited not far from Geyser Peak in a remote part of the Mayacamas near The Geyser geothermal plants. Cal Fire officials determined that blaze was caused by a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. transmission line.

At Geyser Peak, it did not appear any power lines or radio tower equipment had been damaged by the wind or by flames, Turbeville said. No structures were threatened and there were no road closures.

The cause of the fire is under investigation.

Roger Gass, a National Weather Service meteorologist, said that even with the recent rains and coating of snow at Geyser Peak, the ongoing drought has left plenty of brush dry at higher elevations.

“There’s still vegetation out there that can carry fire,” Gass said.

The strongest gusts in the area hit 96 mph in the hills outside of Healdsburg, the National Weather Service reported.

On Saturday morning, firefighters also knocked down a smaller, quarter-acre fire along Chalk Hill Road near Highway 128 east of Windsor. Fire crews arrived at the blaze around 6:30 a.m. and stopped its spread within an hour, Tuberville said.

There were no evacuations or road closures.

A power line was downed in the burn area, Tuberville said, but the cause of the fire is still under investigation.

PG&E would not immediately respond to questions about the downed power line.

Saturday’s fires come nearly a year to the day after a 1.8-acre wildfire ignited in The Geysers area amid a similar pattern of warm, windy winter weather.

This time, gusts in California’s Coast Range topped or neared 90 mph from Healdsburg to San Diego, while one station in the Sierra Nevada recorded peak winds of 141 mph, the National Weather Service reported.

Gass, the meteorologist, said it’s unclear whether such wind events — on Friday caused by a pressure gradient sucking air from the Great Basin in Nevada to the West Coast — are becoming more common in the winter months.

But even though the high winds are more likely in the fall, he said, they are not unexpected this time of year.

“As this event shows, if a fire is started anywhere in these dry and windy conditions, we could have a very dangerous situation,” he said.

As of around 6 p.m. on Saturday, PG&E’s outage map showed potentially hundreds of homes and business were without power across the county.

The largest number of PG&E customers without electricity were neighborhoods in the Sonoma Valley near Boyes Hot Springs and outside Sonoma.

Others appeared to have lost power near the site of the Chalk Hill Road fire where they downed power line was observed.

Additionally, there scattered outages across Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Windsor and Healdsburg.

PG&E would not immediately say what caused the outages or when electricity could be restored.

Emergency dispatchers on Saturday said they received reports of downed trees and power lines throughout the county.

“The story of the day is trees down and wires down,” said one dispatcher with Redcom, the county’s main dispatching service.

The strong winds, which continued into Saturday afternoon, hit a high of 95 mph at one of the highest peaks in the Mayacamas, according to the National Weather Service.

Gusts reached 50 to 60 mph in elevations above 1,500 feet in the eastern part of the county and 30 to 40 mph in the coastal mountain ranges.

In the valleys, winds were mostly around 25 to 30 mph, though a high speed of 49 mph was recorded at the Petaluma Municipal Airport.

In Mendocino County, Cal Fire crews fully contained an 11-acre fire near the town of Leggett by about 9 a.m. No structures were threatened, according to Mendocino County Fire Capt. Leo Simmons-Davis. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

Staff writer Kathleen Coates contributed to this report.

You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at ethan.varian@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5412. On Twitter @ethanvarian

Ethan Varian

Housing and homelessness, The Press Democrat 

I've lived in California for most of my life, and it's hard for me to remember when the state hasn't been in a housing crisis. Here in Sonoma County, sharply rising housing costs and increasing homelessness are reshaping what was long considered the Bay Area’s “affordable” region. As The Press Democrat’s housing and homelessness reporter, I aim to cover how officials, advocates, developers and residents are reacting to and experiencing the ongoing crisis.

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