Hurricane-like winds batter California, knocking out power and adding to wildfire woes

Hurricane-like winds tore through much of California Sunday, worsening the state’s chaotic wildfire picture, toppling trees and closing two busy interstate highways.

More than 2 million Californians were blacked out by PG&E Corp., the state’s largest utility, in a precautionary move — and other, unplanned outages were reported as well as the wind blasted across the besieged state. With another major windstorm forecast for Tuesday, PG&E Corp. said it could shut power once again to residents in 32 counties, adding to the state’s misery.

Arriving shortly after midnight, the fierce offshore winds brought gusts of 80 mph or more to much of the state, particularly in Northern California. A spot near Lake Tahoe, high in the Sierra Nevada mountains, recorded a gust of 103 mph, or 28 mph higher than a low-level hurricane. PG&E officials said the winds were among the worst they’d seen in years and posed a threat to power lines and other equipment.

Although the winds began tapering off around mid-day Sunday, forecasters cautioned that conditions were hardly tame.

“We’re still in the middle of this thing,” said Johnnie Powell of the National Weather Service’s office in Sacramento. Winds were gusting in the low 50 mph range at Sacramento International Airport, he said.

The weather service’s Ryan Walburn said “red flag” warnings — issued when fire danger becomes acute — probably wouldn’t be lifted until sometime around mid-day Monday.

The winds immediately pushed the Kincade Fire, which had been burning in the heart of Sonoma County wine country since Wednesday, southward toward major cities such as Santa Rosa. Cal Fire, the state’s fire agency, ordered evacuations 40 miles away in Bodega Bay, on the Pacific Ocean, as it feared what one official called a “worst-case scenario.”

In terms of wind speeds, Sunday was “a comparable event to what happened in October 2017,” said private weather consultant Jan Null. The wine country fires killed more than 40 people in October 2017, with much of the destruction striking Santa Rosa.

Power lines down

Falling trees and power lines disrupted utility operations. Sacramento’s municipal utility lost power to as many as 22,000 homes and businesses at one point, including hundreds downtown.

That was in addition to the massive “public safety power shutoff” launched by PG&E late Saturday in an effort to prevent more wildfires. Well over 2 million Californians were expected to remain without power until Monday or later, representing nearly one-fifth of PG&E’s customer base across its 70,000-square-mile territory.

The federal government’s National Interagency Coordination Center, which maintains fire watches throughout the West, said strong winds were expected to resume in the northern half of the state sometime Tuesday. That prompted PG&E to issue a fresh warning of another deliberate blackout — the third in a week’s time. The next blackout could hit parts of 32 counties.

The utility is already in bankruptcy because of wildfire liabilities, and Gov. Gavin Newsom and others continued to blame PG&E for failing to maintain its electric grid properly. The utility may have caused the Sonoma County fire, although state investigators haven’t yet assigned blame.

Interstate 80 was closed at a toll bridge passing over the Carquinez Strait, about 20 miles east of San Francisco, when a pair of dangerous brush fires erupted on either side of the bridge. The fire prompted the evacuation of the state’s maritime university and several blocks of residential neighborhoods.

The Carquinez situation was intensified by the PG&E blackout. One of the city of Vallejo’s water pumping stations was disabled, hindering firefighters’ ability to get things under control. City spokeswoman Joanna Altman put out an urgent plea to residents to shut off their sprinklers to conserve water “for fire suppression and for potable water use.”

Numerous grass fires broke out in the Sacramento region, including one just north of downtown that prompted the closure of both lanes of I-5. “It almost looks like we’re surrounded by smoke,” said Keith Wade, a spokesman for the city’s fire department.

Meanwhile, fallen trees halted traffic on portions of Sacramento’s light-rail mass transit system.

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Dale Kasler covers climate change, the environment, economics and the convoluted world of California water. He also covers major enterprise stories for McClatchy’s Western newspapers. He joined The Bee in 1996 from the Des Moines Register and graduated from Northwestern University.