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Lightning is gone, but the risk of fire remains, officials say

Thursday night’s violent electrical storm, which unleashed over 1,000 cloud-to-ground lightning strikes across California, was far less severe than the 12,000-strike maelstrom that ignited over 600 wildfires in the state just over a year ago.

Which is not to say that Mother Nature didn’t just put on an awesome, spectacular — and, at times, terrifying — show.

Between 100 and 125 lightning bolts reached the ground in the Bay Area between Thursday night and Friday morning, meteorologists said.

One or more of those is almost certain to have spawned the Rock fire, an 6-acre blaze that took root on a stubbornly inaccessible mountainside around 7 miles northeast of Cloverdale, feeding on “thick, mature brush and slash,” said Cal Fire-Mendocino unit chief George Gonzalez.

That fire was fully contained contained Friday evening, and will be “staffed for the next several days,” he added.

North Bay fire officials said they will continue to patrol the region to make sure lightning didn’t spark small fires that may continue to grow, particularly in vegetation that got a light drenching during the storm but will dry in a matter of days.

“That happens very frequently and that’s my highest of concerns,” Gonzalez said. “We won’t be off guard and back to our normal status until maybe Monday.”

Hours after lightning subsided, a Cal Fire reconnaissance helicopter discovered the Vineyard fire burning about a mile from the Rock fire. Firefighters were dispatched to the scene around 9:30 a.m. Friday and contained it to another fire about a mile from the Rock fire. Firefighters were dispatched to the Vineyard fire at 9:30 a.m. and contained it to a ¼-acre Friday afternoon.

Another lightning bolt struck a stout, 100-plus foot evergreen tree in the front yard of Efrain Andrede, on Becky Court in Rohnert Park.

The lightning didn’t burn the tree, Andrede explained, so much as it blew it to smithereens, sending firewood-sized fragments over a radius of at least 200 yards.

“It exploded,” recalled Andrede, who was watching TV around 9:15 p.m. when his world, and that of his neighbors, was rocked.

The jagged end of one sizeable log embedded itself vertically in the windshield of Andrede’s Nissan pickup, as if hurled by Thor himself. That truck was one of at least four vehicles damaged in the cul-de-sac.

Splintered sections of the tree reached houses one street over.

“You could see pieces of it on their roofs,” said a neighbor, who declined to give his name.

Residents said they felt fortunate that the tree hadn’t taken down power lines, or damaged homes.

“PG&E were here last night, up on all of our roofs. They disconnected all the power lines,” said the neighbor.

What ingredients go into the creation of these awesome electrical light shows?

Lightning is an electrical discharge brought forth by imbalances between storm clouds and the ground, or within clouds themselves.

A freight train of “monsoonal moisture” made its way toward the North Bay Thursday evening, “and that meant warm, unstable air passing through,” said Brayden Murdock, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service. Beneath that was a marine layer. Intersecting with it was a a low pressure trough bearing down from the Pacific northwest.

Those elements interacted “kind of right over the Bay Area,” said Murdock, compounding the instability that “put that charge” — that jagged, white electricity — “in the atmosphere.”

Rainfall in Sonoma County was light, with the Charles M. Schulz–Sonoma County Airport recording 0.04 inch, and 0.05 inch in Santa Rosa. Petaluma got 0.01 inch.

Thursday’s lightning came not quite 13 months after the electrical storm that ignited, among others, the Walbridge fire, which burned 55,209 acres and destroyed 150 homes in the hills or northwestern Sonoma County. Asked if he’d gone into this latest round of lightning with a sense of foreboding, Marshall Turbeville seemed to shrug over the phone.

“We knew going in it could potentially be bad,” said Turbeville, chief of the Northern Sonoma County Fire Protection District. Experts said it wasn’t going to be as bad as in 2020, and it wasn’t.

“But we were very fortunate to get some rain, which was awesome.”

And then, as if he’d jinxed himself, Turbeville added, “I should knock wood right now, because it’s going to get warm this weekend” — highs will reach the mid-80s on Sunday, according to forecasts.

“If you see smoke, we need people to call us, and let us know — early. And if they know how to get us to the fire, that would be good, too.”

The Rock fire burned in a rural area and firefighters were initially unsure whether it was in Mendocino or Sonoma county, Gonzalez said. Turbeville said the site was accessible via Pine Mountain and Green roads in Cloverdale, which meant crews had to drive south into Sonoma County before reentering Mendocino County.

James Gore, the county Supervisor whose district includes areas torched by the Tubbs, Kincade and Walbridge fires in 2017, 2019 and last year, respectively, did not find himself dreading the arrival of Thursday’s storm.

Having worked closely with them, Gore has deep confidence in the county’s fire officials and firefighters. He’s also developed something of a callus and emotional shield that grew still thicker following the string of suspicious Labor Day brushfires which broke out in and around Healdsburg, one of them just a few hundred feet from his house.

Like many others in the county, Gore and his family have been forced to evacuate their Healdsburg home five times. “It’s a bad feeling — you’re saying goodbye to it.” But at the same time, he said, he’s gotten used to it. He and his crew have the drill down.

“You make a plan for your family. You know where your important documents are,” he said.

“It’s like the Serenity Prayer. You control what you can control, and go on living your life.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

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