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High winds buffet Sonoma County as 23,000 PG&E customers left without power

In anticipation of dangerous weather conditions starting Sunday night, PG&E cut power to more than 23,000 Sonoma County customers as part of a preemptive power shut-off to reduce the risk of its power lines igniting a wildfire during the strongest windstorm during this brutal fire season.

By nightfall, winds in the North Bay whipped to over 80 mph at Mount St. Helena high in the Mayacamas Mountains, and humidity levels had dropped to single digits down in Santa Rosa, marking the most extreme fire weather conditions yet for an area that already has endured a historic fire season with Walbridge and Glass infernos, respectively, in August and September.

With greater peak wind speeds expected to arrive close to midnight, Sonoma County braced Sunday for the type of “extreme” wind event not seen since the 2017 firestorm destroyed thousands of homes, and the 2019 Kincade fire scorched nearly 80,000 acres to become the county’s largest by acreage burned.

The howling winds come at the tail end of a fire season that already has burned 430,000 acres in Napa and Sonoma counties, and nearly 1 million acres in Mendocino County, and it has heightened tension for a population in the throes of a deadly pandemic.

Amid that backdrop, PG&E officials called the move to cut power to 361,000 customers in 36 California counties and 17 tribal communities a “last resort option.”

“It’s been an incredibly challenging fire season,” said Aaron Johnson, PG&E vice president of wildfire safety and public engagement. “We understand that a power shut-off does not make handling all of the things that life is throwing at us right now any easier.”

The utility said 23,464 residential and commercial customers countywide were unplugged by 6 p.m. Sunday, and power should be restored by 10 p.m. Tuesday. About 46,000 local residents are expected to be affected by the blackout.

Residents of Oakmont Village near Santa Rosa reported losing power as early as 2:30 p.m. One resident said she was lucky she able to get her car out of the garage before the power went out.

“I was confused because I had gotten a message that said it wasn’t going to be turned off,“ Oakmont resident Florentia Scott said.

Although the National Weather Service predicted the mighty wind event in Northern California that posed serious fire threats, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. said early Sunday favorable changes in the company’s own computer weather modeling prompted a reduction in planned power outages across its service area.

PG&E expected to cut power to about 100,000 fewer customers than previously announced. The utility started to turn off power in areas such the northern Sierra region at 10 a.m. Sunday.

“Based on the our meteorologists’ analysis of the model, they determined that the conditions had improved for approximately 105,000 customers,” PG&E spokeswoman Melissa Subbotin said.

PG&E said it was powering down parts of its electrical network due to a significant offshore wind event that arrived Sunday night. Dry humidity levels, the utility said, coupled with “the strongest winds of the wildfire season thus far” will cause “high risk of catastrophic wildfires.”

Duane Dykema, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Monterey, said the wind in the North Bay began picking up Sunday afternoon, but the strongest wind gusts are expected to come late at night and last until 7 a.m. or 8 a.m. Monday morning.

“That’s one of the reasons this event is more dangerous that some of the previous events this season,” Dykema said. “There’ll be more widespread impact, a bigger area than most of our previous events, which were mainly up in the hills.”

Wind speed will gradually decrease throughout Monday, though remaining fairly strong in the hills, he said.

That’s why the weather service’s wind advisory and red flag warning for the lower elevations is set to expire at 11 a.m. Monday. But Dykema said the red flag warning for the North Bay mountainous area will continue into Tuesday morning and it might even be extended until the afternoon.

“The winds will still remain gusty up there for 24 hours,” he said.

Dykema said daytime temperatures Monday are expected to be mild in the low 70s, because the weather system triggering the fierce wind event is coming out of Western Canada.

Meteorologist Brayden Murdock said by 8 p.m. Sunday, humidity in Santa Rosa had already dipped to 8%, a factor that, coupled with rising winds, spelled extreme fire danger.

Mount St. Helena northeast of Santa Rosa already registered wind gusts of greater than 80 mph and sustained winds in the 70 mph range by 9 p.m., according to the National Weather Service.

Across the North Bay, residents on Sunday prepared for power outages and possible fires.

Leslie Pietsch, who lives on Gates Road off Calistoga Road, went to nearby Safeway to buy a few items. Pietsch said her community on Gates Road, just north of St. Helena Road, was spared from the Glass fire several weeks ago, as well as the Tubbs fire in October 2017.

At the supermarket, Pietsch bought ice, canned foods, bananas and bread. She has a generator at home, back-up gas and propane and plenty of flashlights.

“We don’t rely on candles — ever — because we live in kindling,” she said, smiling.

Like many others in the North Bay, Pietsch has grown accustomed to the threat of wildland blazes and power outages. She said since the 2017 firestorm she’s gradually been putting her most precious belongings in storage.

Scott, who lives on Oakmont Drive in Oakmont, said if a fire ignites that threatens her neighborhood, she hasn’t decided if she will stay home or leave.

“I haven’t made up my mind yet,” she said. “I have a son in Sacramento and he asked me to stay with him. But they’re under an extreme fire alert, too.”

Just before 4:30 p.m., Santa Rosa Fire Department announced it had opened gates to some emergency access roads to allow emergency vehicles to patrol freely during the peak of the anticipated wind event. Officials said in the event of an emergency evacuation in these areas, residents may be asked to use the access roads.

The city activated its emergency operations center Sunday evening, and the police and fire departments added staff on the job, officials said.

In the Skyhawk neighborhood, just south of where the Glass fire destroyed many homes on Mountain Hawk Drive, Kermit Springstead and Armand Braun sat on their front porch Sunday afternoon, watching a Saturday Night Live video on a cellphone.

Near the front door of the couple’s home were a packed suitcase, bottled water, a blower fan, a black crate of food and a foam roller for exercise. Springstead and Braun were cheerful, since they had just gotten a message from PG&E that their power was not going to be turned off.

“Last year, we had six power outages,” Springstead said. “After a while, it was beyond necessary.”

While hopeful, the couple said they still worried about the potential for a wildfire.

“While we wouldn’t want to lose our home, ultimately it’s a house,” Braun said. “What’s important is what you take with you when you leave.“

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno.

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