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At least 2 dozen lightning strikes confirmed in North Bay, fire officials boost staffing

Sonoma County public safety officials called in extra personnel and readied emergency alert systems late Thursday into Friday morning as thunderstorms arrived in the North Bay and a broader swath of Northern California, posing an extreme wildfire risk at the height of a historic, drought-fueled fire season.

“This is an ‘all hands on deck’ event for us,” Sonoma County Fire District Chief Mark Heine said Thursday. “It’s a very high-impact event for us.”

As of 12:45 a.m. Friday, the National Weather Service reported that at least two dozen lightning strikes had been confirmed in parts of Sonoma, Napa and Marin counties.

“In our reality, the forecast is playing out as anticipated pretty nicely,” Roger Gass, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said. “Historically, late August into September are typically times we would have this setup develop. But it was obviously something we were mindful of and concerned about, given our dry conditions across the region.”

Lightning developed in the Santa Rosa area just before 9 p.m. and the National Weather Service confirmed eight cloud-to-ground strikes in Sonoma County, alone, as of 9:45 p.m.

One strike was within the September 2020 Glass fire’s burn area east of Santa Rosa. It burned 67,484 acres and destroyed 1,555 structures.

Three other lightning strikes were east of Rohnert Park, but the other four locations weren’t specified.

There also were reports of fires across the North Bay late Thursday, but officials were slow in confirming whether any of them were caused by lightning.

Just before 11:30 p.m., fire and lightning activity was reported in the eastern hills south of Hopland in Mendocino County.

A small fire that was being called the Rock fire was captured on one of Alert Wildfire’s cameras in a grassy area purported to be in the eastern hills in Mendocino County.

Smoke and flames could be seen rising from the fire into the night sky, but it did not appear to be spreading.

The Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office tweeted that the fire “activity” was being assessed, but did not specify if lightning was the cause.

The Santa Rosa Fire Department tweeted out at 11 p.m. that there had not been any fires in the city. But around 11:30 p.m., there were unconfirmed reports that lightning caused a tree fire on Mountain Meadow Lane.

Cal Fire firefighters were investigating a fire on Wall Road in Napa County, but a spokesman said it was too early to say if it was linked to lightning.

Light amounts of rain also fell across the North Bay. Kenwood received a little more than a 10th of an inch, which was the wettest area, and additional measurable rain was anticipated throughout the night.

Conditions kicked off a weather event that had been anticipated all week and led to extra precautions by firefighters.

Increased staffing and patrols are expected to last well into Friday morning as the North Bay remains under a National Weather Service red flag warning that’s not scheduled to expire until 11 a.m.

Peak lightning periods were expected to last until then and fire officials across Sonoma County prepared themselves for fires that had potential to erupt overnight or Friday morning if lightning struck dry vegetation that’s spread across the North Bay landscape.

Gray, cloudy skies covered the North Bay Thursday night and thunder could be heard in Santa Rosa shortly after 9 p.m. The Weather Service confirmed some strikes in the Santa Rosa area at 9:20 p.m.

The first sign of a storm came around 5:30 p.m. when light rain fell onto Santa Rosa, and Weather service meteorologist Ryan Walbrun said that was to be expected and indicative of forecasted conditions.

Earlier this week, the National Weather Service had issued a fire weather watch that kicked in at 5 p.m. Thursday before it was upgraded to the red flag warning.

It covers all but the far western edges of Mendocino, Sonoma and Marin counties, all of Napa and Lake counties and much of the East Bay hills and valleys, extending north and east into the Sacramento Valley and Sierra Nevada foothills.

The warning came on the one-year anniversary of what the weather service dubbed “Mars Day,” when wildfire smoke turned the Bay Area’s sky an ominous orange amid last year’s unprecedented siege of wildfires, including the August Complex, the state’s first million-acre inferno that burned for weeks over a half-dozen counties in Northern California.

The front moving into the North Bay was taking shape west of Big Sur in the Pacific Ocean and will head inland to the northeast.

“That should be making a bee line toward the greater Bay Area,” Walbrun said. “The ingredients are in place for it to blossom” Thursday evening.

Walbrun reiterated forecasters don’t expect conditions to be as bad as the historic August 2020 lightning storm that sparked three giant Northern California wildfire complexes and hundreds of smaller fires. That storm produced lightning strikes that erupted into the Walbridge and Hennessey fires.

“We’re hoping it won’t generate as much lightning as last year,” said Chris Godley, Sonoma County’s emergency management director.

Nonetheless, the North Bay’s drought-parched landscape has only increased the threat posed by wildfire at this time of year.

“It’s a high probability that, if we get lightning, it will start fires and that’s the main concern,” Walbrun said. “Even a few fires could become problematic.”

The forecast has stoked concerns that a new wave of fires could ignite at a time when firefighting resources are stretched thin by the massive Dixie and Caldor fires burning for weeks in the Sierra Nevada, along with other blazes.

Heine said roving patrols will be done by a task force comprised of firefighters from the Santa Rosa and Cloverdale fire departments, and the Sonoma County, Monte Rio, Bodega Bay and Sonoma Valley fire districts. It includes a battalion chief and about 22 people on five fire engines and a water tender.

Each vehicle will be used for individual patrols but will converge when necessary, Heine said.

The task force will operate on top of any additional staffing in place at fire stations across the county.

The timing of this week’s lightning storm creates a major challenge for firefighters. Since it’s happening at night, aircraft won’t be used and firefighters can’t rely on the public to be awake and report any fires.

“We literally don’t know if we have a fire from that lightning until sun-up,” Heine said.

Some emergency response agencies are bringing in additional personnel.

Cal Fire’s Sonoma-Lake-Napa Unit on Thursday called in extra firefighters and helicopters, said spokesman Tyree Zander.

“Mother Nature is going to do its thing and we’re here to go out if anything were to start,” he said. “We’re ready and available.”

Santa Rosa Fire Department will bring two off-duty engine crews onto active duty for the coming days to increase staffing levels, Assistant Fire Marshal Paul Lowenthal said. Countywide, fire agencies will add additional resources and coordinate “strike teams” to respond to fire starts, he said.

“Whether it’s one lightning strike or more, that risk is high right now,” Lowenthal said.

Increasing staff was not a part of the Santa Rosa Police Department’s preparations Thursday afternoon, but the department has begun notifying officers on a rotation to be on standby and setting up outdoor briefing areas for mutual aid, said Sgt. Chris Mahurin.

A key communications resource for public safety agencies and local governments, the county’s emergency management department has brought in an additional staff duty officer who is tasked with processing and sharing information 24/7, Godley said.

Since the warning, the department has hosted calls between the weather service, public safety agencies, school districts and city and county leadership. Concerns over how quickly the storm will move and at what times the lightning poses the greatest threat, are the core questions dominating those conversations, Godley said.

Forecasters said the chance of thunderstorms is highest late Thursday afternoon into Friday morning. Thursday’s storm should have zero wind.

“That’s one bit of good news. There’s no strong winds in the forecast,” Walbrun said.

Just before 6 p.m. Thursday, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. spokeswoman Tamar Sarkissian said no power shut-offs were on tap for Thursday night.

But, the California Independent System Operator on Thursday extended a Flex Alert calling for voluntary statewide electricity conservation from 4 to 9 p.m. Thursday, as high temperatures persist around the state, leading to increased use of air conditioners that could put a strain on the power grid.

Should the county need to alert residents of incidents or evacuations, it will use emergency notification systems including Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) a national program that delivers local alerts directly to residents’ cellphones, and SoCoAlert which is a system specific to Sonoma County.

Key for residents right now is to think about what items they will need should they have to evacuate and what plans, like pet care they might have to organize, Godley said.

He also urged residents to make sure neighbors are aware of the warning.

It is a message similar to those that came from the county during fire season last year.

“We’re encouraging people to capitalize on the experiences that we’ve learned and gained,” Godley said.

Staff writers Matt Pera, Andrew Graham and Emily Wilder contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writers Emma Murphy at 707-521-5228 or emma.murphy@pressdemocrat.com and Colin Atagi at 707-521-5390 colin.atagi@pressdemocrat.com.

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