National Weather Service officials warn 'don't be lulled' by low wind
The warning came Wednesday afternoon from National Weather Service officials. The pleasant fall day across much of the North Bay, with calm breezes and warm temperatures, would within hours turn to a gusty evening and dangerously windy night.
The wind is coming, Weather Service officials told local fire authorities. It had already been reported in other fire-prone areas of the state, including fire-scarred Lake County, where gusts were clocked at over 40 mph.
“Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security due to the lack of wind right now,” Sonoma County Fire Chief Mark Heine said, repeating the warning. “A major wind event still is going to impact us with a very significant windstorm.”
The forecast echoed the outlook from earlier this week and led Sonoma County fire officials to add more than three dozen fire engines and water tenders, and some 120 firefighters to the already full staffing.
“We’re all geared up for a large response on any reported fires,” Heine said. “It’s concerning us that not only are they talking about winds in the tops of the ridge lines and peaks. They’re talking about it all the way down to the valley floor.”
A red flag warning indicating extreme fire weather was in effect from 5 a.m. Wednesday through 5 p.m. Thursday. The warning coincided with PG&E’s largest-ever series of planned power shut-offs, affecting about 700,000 customers across Northern and Central California. They were meant to stem the risk of electrical equipment sparking catastrophic blazes like those that devastated the North Bay in 2017 and Butte County last year.
Sonoma County fire officials Wednesday divided the additional troops into four groups and the county into four sections, using Highway 101 as a dividing line. The teams are stationed in each of the geographic areas.
“We’ll have a large response on any vegetation fire and still maintain coverage in other parts of the county,” Heine said.
While PG&E said it had rolled out the full extent of its planned outages in Sonoma County, fire officials noted that the wind was likely to cause more outages as powerful gusts toppled trees into poles and any lines still carrying electricity.
“We’re going to see other outages,” Heine said.
Forecasters predicted the worst of the winds would happen late Wednesday and early Thursday.
“It’ll mostly be around the time people are going to bed that the winds are really forecasted to max out,” said Spencer Tangen, meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
The forecast called for sustained winds in the hills of 20 mph to 30 mph with gusts of 40 mph to 50 mph and more than 70 mph in the highest elevations. The worst was expected from 8 p.m. Wednesday to 6 a.m. Thursday.
The valleys too should see sustained winds of 10 to 20 mph and gusts up to 40 mph. The peak valley winds should occur from midnight to about 3 a.m.
The conditions evoked comparisons with the weather that gave rise to the 2017 firestorm, the most destructive outbreak of wildfire on record in California at the time.
“The large scale weather pattern over us now is almost identical to 2017 and eerily, occurring almost at the same time,” said Steve Anderson, senior meteorologist with the weather agency.
The current pattern has not, however, included scorching temperatures, with afternoon highs in the low 80s this week. Nighttime lows were expected to drop to the upper 30s Thursday night into Friday morning.
“If people still don’t have power that’s going to be an issue,” Tangen said. “It’ll be really cold at night.”
There was no sign of rain coming in the next week, but also no indication of a second fire threat like this one, he said.
You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 707‑521-5412 or firstname.lastname@example.org.