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Fire weather watch: 38,000 Sonoma County homes and businesses could lose power as North Bay upgraded to red-flag warning

More than 38,000 homes and businesses in Sonoma County could lose power as the strongest winds of the 2020 fire season are forecast to rip over the Bay Area beginning Sunday, prompting Pacific Gas & Electric Co. to consider turning off electricity to more than 466,000 customers throughout the state.

The preemptive power shut-off, done so the utility can prevent its equipment from sparking new fires during gusty weather, would be the most widespread of the year so far if the utility decides to pull the trigger, PG&E spokeswoman Mayra Tostado said.

Expected gusts of 70 mph in the hills and up to 50 mph on the Santa Rosa Plain, paired with an ongoing dry spell, prompted the National Weather Service on Friday to issue a pair of red flag warnings for both the Bay Area hills and lower-lying areas.

“The really strong, critical time for winds will be Sunday night into Monday morning,” said David King, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Monterey. “It will start in the North Bay mountains and East Bay hills and higher elevations. But Sunday night, around 8 p.m. we estimate, that’s when winds will come down to the valley floor and intensify.”

The warning covering the North Bay mountains and East Bay hills starts at 11 a.m. Sunday and lasts until 11 a.m. Tuesday.

The second, shorter red flag warning covering lower-lying areas in Sonoma County, including the Highway 101 corridor and the coast, begins at 8 p.m. Sunday and ends 11 a.m. Monday. The warning area extends south to the San Francisco Peninsula and the Santa Cruz-area mountains. Valleys in the East Bay and the Santa Clara Valley were also included.

The announcement of the first red flag warning came just hours after the National Weather Service issued a high wind watch starting Sunday afternoon for most of the Bay Area.

It warned of overnight gusts in the North Bay hills that could reach more than 70 mph in what is expected to be the strongest winds so far of the 2020 fire season, mixed with “critically dry conditions.”

Offshore winds from the north and northeast are forecast to reach sustained speeds of up to 40 mph on the mountains and ridges, and 30 mph in the valleys. The gusts are expected to be fastest in the North Bay mountains and East Bay hills, cresting at 70 mph or more. Areas at lower elevations could still see gusts of up to 50 mph.

“These are winds that can potentially bring down power lines, so people need to be prepared, have batteries and their phones charged,” King said.

On Friday, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. began notifying customers it may preemptively cut power to avoid energized lines from sparking a wildland fire.

The alerts coincided with the anniversary of last year’s Kincade fire, which sparked in the Mayacamas Mountains during a planned power outage. The blaze grew to 77,758 acres and at one point forced the evacuation of nearly 200,000 Sonoma County residents before it was contained. It is the largest recorded wildfire in Sonoma County’s history.

About 466,000 homes and businesses in 38 counties across Northern and Central California could be affected by the latest shut-offs if the utility decides they are needed, said Tostado, the PG&E spokeswoman.

Of those, 38,119 would be in Sonoma County, according to the utility’s estimates on Friday. More than a third, or 15,053, would be in the Santa Rosa city limits.

Nearly 23,000 would be in unincorporated land on both sides of Highway 101, including an area west of Healdsburg down to Occidental and a patchy slice of land spanning much of the east Sonoma County border, the PG&E website said.

Santa Rosa officials were preparing to open their emergency operations center on Sunday as a precaution and the city’s police and fire departments would add staffing over the course of the day, City Councilman Chris Rogers said on Facebook.

PG&E forecasts showed the outages could additionally affect 15,600 homes and businesses in Napa County, another 20,000 in Marin County and more than 31,000 in Lake County.

Nearly all the shut-offs in the state, including the ones in Sonoma County, would begin on Sunday and last through Tuesday, the utility said.

Underscoring the threat posed by dry conditions, a new fire broke out Friday afternoon and burned through about 67 acres in Napa County within the span of a few hours. The blaze, named the Pope fire, drew 127 fire personnel and several firefighting aircraft, Cal Fire said.

The Pope fire sparked in the area of Lower Chiles Valley Road and Chiles Pope Valley Road just before 4 p.m. It was 50% contained about three hours later and its cause was under investigation. No evacuations or structural damages were reported.

Plans to cut power off to 3,400 customers in Sonoma and Napa counties earlier this week as part of a larger swath of Northern California due to heightened fire weather conditions were called off after winds turned out to be calmer than anticipated, PG&E said.

Roughly 32,000 customers in the Sacramento Valley and Sierra Nevada foothills were still affected by the shut-off, though nearly all of the affected customers had power back by late Friday afternoon, PG&E said.

“We know that being without power represents a hardship, especially for customers who might have to lose power a second time within a week,” Mark Quinlan, a PG&E senior director and incident commander of the shut-off events, said in a news release. “We are making every effort to restore power by Friday at latest so that our customers can run their appliances, recharge their devices and do what’s needed before the power potentially goes off again on Sunday morning.”

The Mendocino National Forest has expanded its fire ban through Oct. 30 due to the fire weather conditions. Trees and vegetation are extremely dry and firefighting resources remain scarce, leading to the extension.

You can reach Staff Writers Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@pressdemocrat.com and Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com.

Nashelly Chavez

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, The Press Democrat 

Who calls the North Bay home and how do their backgrounds, socioeconomic status and other factors shape their experiences? What cultures, traditions and religions are celebrated where we live? These are the questions that drive me as I cover diversity, equity and inclusion in Sonoma County and beyond.   

 

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