Strong winds topple trees and down power lines across Sonoma County
Powerful winds, nearing triple-digit speeds at some North Bay mountainous peaks, ripped across the region Monday night, topping trees into roadways and at least one home as a rare January wildland fire ignited in the hills east of Geyserville.
The flames, which broke out just before 10 p.m. off Big Geysers Road in The Geysers geothermal area, were contained to a few acres after firefighters quickly responded.
But the fierce offshore winds and report of a winter-time fire unnerved Sonoma County residents who endured a record-breaking 2020 fire season.
By Tuesday afternoon, the so-called Old fire had burned about two acres and was fully contained, Cal Fire officials said. No structures were damaged and no evacuation orders were issued.
Firefighters successfully prevented flames from spreading even as gusts in the Mayacamas Mountains topped 80 mph, with one gauge recording speeds of 97 mph, making for one of the strongest wind storms to hit the North Bay in years, if not decades.
In the 2019 Kincade fire, which ignited in the same area of northeastern Sonoma County, top gusts hit 75 mph in the Healdsburg hills, according to archived data from the National Weather Service.
Overnight Monday, winds in the North Bay valleys reached at least 30 mph, including 50 mph gusts in Santa Rosa, according to the weather service.
“It’s definitely unusual to have this kind of offshore wind event in January,” said weather service meteorologist Anna Schneider.
More than 70 firefighters from Cal Fire and local departments in Sonoma and Lake counties responded to the blaze. It sparked on the leeward side of a drainage, which meant the topography shielded flames from the fiercest winds and helped firefighters get it under control.
“It was very windy, but where the fire was oriented on the hillside, it was actually sheltered from the wind for the most part,” said Gold Ridge Fire Protection Chief Shepley Schroth-Cary, who led a crew in fighting the blaze.
Winds measured on site by one fire official hit 50 mph, he said, but soil and vegetation in the area was moist enough after recent rains to keep flames from spreading quickly.
PG&E transmission lines were downed near the flames, and firefighters had to wait for utility crews to deactivate the lines before they could dig hand lines and lay hose, Schroth-Cary said.
At around 9:40 p.m., PG&E crews received an alert that a transmission line near the Geysers was "impacted“ by high winds, utility spokeswoman Deanna Contreras said Tuesday, declining to elaborate further on the condition of that electrical line.
“Upon arrival, we worked with first responders to make the area safe for Cal Fire to control a small vegetation fire in the area,” the utility said in a statement.
In the North Bay, PG&E did not issue any preemptive power shut-offs Monday, which saw strong north winds strafe much of the state.
Contreras said the utility takes multiple factors into account before activating planned shut-offs to reduce fire risk, including wind forecasts, humidity levels, red flag fire weather warnings and the dryness of brush at a given time.
Despite the high winds Monday night, neither humidity levels nor the amount of moisture held in vegetation dropped low enough to trigger shut-offs, she said.
Contreras declined to answer whether PG&E equipment could have started the fire. State fire officials will make that determination, she said.
Cal Fire spokesman Will Powers said the cause of the fire is still under investigation and declined to say if PG&E equipment had any role in sparking the fire.
Christopher Chow, a spokesman for the state Public Utilities Commission could not immediately say whether PG&E had notified the agency of any downed power lines, which the utility would be required to report.
Brett Kerr, a spokesman for Calpine, which owns most plants in The Geysers geothermal complex, confirmed the fire started on the company’s property but said “there is no evidence to suggest that our facilities were involved in causing the fire.”
In the North Bay mountains, PG&E recorded winds of 97 mph at its Santa Fe Geothermal gauge, 96 mph at Pine Flat Road and 92 mph at Mt. St. Helena.
Across the region, the winds downed trees and damaged property while knocking out electricity to around 6,500 PG&E customers in Sonoma County.