A potential ‘historic event’: Strong winds, low humidity increase California wildfire fears

As the Kincade Fire blazed through 25,000 acres of Sonoma County by Saturday morning, wind conditions and low humidity in the Bay Area have prompted a red flag warning and heightened concerns of impending fire danger and power shutoffs.

“Confidence is high that an offshore wind event featuring strong and dangerous winds and critically low humidity will impact the area from this evening through Monday morning,” the National Weather Service advised on Saturday. “This event looks to be the strongest since the 2017 wine country fires and potentially a historic event given the strength and duration of the winds.”

By 8 p.m. Saturday, the North and East Bay could experience sustained and gusty winds ranging from 15 to 80 mph, the weather service said. The wind advisory will remain in effect until 11 a.m. Monday. A red flag warning will also remain in effect through Monday morning due to the “dangerously strong offshore winds and critically low humidity.” The Bay Area Air Quality Management District also issued an air quality advisory for the affected areas.

The winds have the capacity to blow down tree limbs, increase power outages and rapidly feed a fire, the weather service said.

While the fire’s parameters expanded by Saturday morning, containment also increased from 5% to 10%. Cal Fire wrote that it expects the fire to be fully contained by Oct. 31.

The Kincade flames have destroyed nearly 50 structures so far, with an additional 23,500 threatened. There were 179 engines, 24 water tenders, 10 helicopters and more than 2,000 personnel working to mitigate the fire by Saturday morning, according to Cal Fire.

Another round of evacuations were ordered at 10 a.m. from the North Knights Valley Area to the Napa County Line, and from the Highway 101 corridor to Windsor, including all of Healdsburg.

“The fire is burning in remote, steep terrain, making access difficult and slow due to narrow roads,” the agency said.

Meanwhile, the Tick Fire in Los Angeles County grew slightly to 4,615 acres and is now 25% contained. Smaller fires less than 100 acres in Alameda, San Diego and San Mateo counties were largely contained by Saturday morning.

The “historic wind event” prompted PG&E on Friday night to announce an estimated 850,000 customers could be affected by a third round of power shutoffs. That number increased to 940,000 by Saturday morning, with shutoffs planned to begin by 2 p.m.

“It’s important to note that as this weather system sweeps from north to south over a period of two days, PG&E customers across Northern and Central California will feel the effects of hot, dry winds at different times, which means outage times will vary, as well,” the utility wrote in a press release.

The blackouts could affect 36 counties throughout California, including areas of Humboldt, the Sierra foothills, Western Sacramento Valley, the Bay Area and the Central Coast.

The troubled utility advised customers to plan for the shutoffs by planning for medical needs, building an emergency supply kit and ensuring a generator is readily available.

Hannah Wiley joined The Bee as a legislative reporter in 2019. She produces the morning newsletter for Capitol Alert and previously reported on immigration, education and criminal justice. She’s a Chicago-area native and a graduate of Saint Louis University and Northwestern.