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Sonoma County emerges from latest critical fire period largely unscathed, power restored to most customers

Sonoma County escaped mostly unscathed Tuesday as a period hazardous fire weather with record-dry conditions and fierce inland winds dissipated, allowing PG&E crews to restore electricity to most of the more than 23,000 Sonoma County customers affected by the utility’s latest planned power shut-off.

The weakening conditions meant a red flag warning that began Sunday morning for the North Bay mountains and other parts of the Bay Area was allowed to expire Tuesday afternoon as planned.

Firefighters reported less activity over night across the North Bay after increasing staff and patrols to ensure any new fires were tackled before growing into a major blaze.

One brush fire was reported early Tuesday — a small blaze southwest of Sonoma along Stage Gulch Road, which was quickly extinguished around 1 a.m. Another came about 7:30 p.m. on Franz Valley School Road near the Sonoma-Napa county line west of Calistoga. Firefighters quickly surrounded that fire, as well.

Most areas above 1,000 feet saw gusts over 40 mph, and Mount St. Helena recorded the strongest at 78 mph, according to the National Weather Service.

PG&E crews had reported 130 cases of damage to its equipment statewide as of Tuesday afternoon, a number that was expected to increase, PG&E incident commander Mark Quinlan said during a press briefing.

The utility, which began turning off parts of its grid Sunday to reduce fire risk, identified the hazards during inspections early this week. The step is required before power can be restored to homes and businesses, Quinlan said.

Some of the damage was caused by falling branches or trees during periods of high winds, circumstances that could have led to new fires had the lines been energized, he said.

“When that happens, the probability of a fire ignition is high and if that happens while we have very high winds, it’s very, very dangerous,” Quinlan said.

About 65% of the 23,400 Sonoma County homes and businesses affected by the planned outage had power turned back on by late Tuesday afternoon, though all were forecast to have power restored by Tuesday night, PG&E spokeswoman Deanna Contreras said.

Roughly 350,000 PG&E customers statewide had their electricity shut off as part of the utility’s latest round of preventative outages. Of those, 87% had power restored by 6 p.m.Tuesday.

No additional planned power shut-offs were expected for the rest of the week, Quinlan said.

A sense of relief started to settle in throughout the region by Tuesday morning as the weather mellowed amid what has been a record-shattering year for wildfire in California.

“It’s been a long haul — never-ending fire season it feels like,” said Santa Rosa Fire Battalion Chief Jason Jenkins. “We still remain ready and strong to finish, just waiting until we get some rain.”

Like many local fire departments, the local Cal Fire unit had upped its staffing overnight Monday and placed crews in fire-prone areas across the North Bay mountains, Cal Fire spokesman Tyree Zander said.

Those crews remained in place until the end of the red flag warning, though the agency would continue to monitor the region in the days ahead since dry conditions will remain a concern, he said.

“Our only sign of relief is rainfall,” Zander said.

Without any rain in the 10-day forecast and a lack of moisture leaving ground vegetation parched, dry conditions will remain, said Matt Mehle, a weather service meteorologist stationed in Monterey.

“We’re going to finally start to turn the corner,” Mehle said. “We’re going to stay dry but the bigger thing is the winds are going to start to go away, and that’s the major concern from a fire standpoint.”

You can reach Staff Writers Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@pressdemocrat.com or Yousef Baig at 707-521-5390 or yousef.baig@pressdemocrat.com.

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