Weather News

Strongest wind in years? Northern California braces for wildfire risk and lack of power

Extreme winds are anticipated to sweep across most of Northern California this weekend, with “damaging gusts” possibly lasting into Monday, according to the National Weather Service.

Weather experts say this weekend could easily bring the region’s heaviest winds of 2019, possibly becoming the biggest wind storm in years.

The conditions could include gusts surpassing 60 mph in some parts of the valley and Delta areas, according to the NWS Sacramento office. Sacramento and the San Francisco area could each see gusts reach 40 mph, according to Friday morning forecasts by the NWS.

Of paramount concern is critical wildfire danger throughout the state, just days after extreme winds Wednesday night fueled explosive growth on the Kincade Fire, which erupted quickly to 10,000 acres by early Thursday and led to mandatory evacuation orders for about 2,000 residents in and near the rural town of Geyserville.

The Kincade Fire destroyed a few dozen homes and other buildings as it burned near idyllic Sonoma County vineyards, before winds calmed later Thursday morning, but no deaths or injuries have been reported. The fire was reported at 21,900 acres and 5 percent containment as of Cal Fire’s Friday morning update.

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday declared a state of emergency in Sonoma and Los Angeles counties due to the Kincade Fire and the Tick Fire, the latter of which has forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of people. Newsom announced he will travel to the area impacted by the Kincade Fire later Friday.

Seasonally warm temperatures and low humidities in Saturday and Sunday’s forecasts are also factoring into what NWS in a tweet called “extreme fire weather conditions.”

In addition to wildfire spread, winds in the range anticipated for this weekend will create a strong likelihood of downed trees, unplanned power outages and challenging driving conditions on some roadways. Loose objects like patio furniture could also be tossed around.

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. said as of 9 p.m. Thursday it had restored power to 93 percent of the 178,000 households and businesses to which it deliberately cut power the previous day in its latest “public safety power shutoff” event.

But PG&E says it is considering yet another blackout that would begin Saturday in which some customers could lose power for 48 hours or longer.

The utility has not yet provided specific details on the areas or estimated number of customers that would be impacted by a weekend shutoff event, as of a 3:30 a.m. Friday update to the PG&E website.

However, Chief Executive Bill Johnson said late Thursday the blackout would likely be about as widespread as the massive shutoff that began Oct. 9, which cut power to 738,000 households and businesses. He said it could last longer than the Oct. 9 blackout, which left some customers without power for three days.

And local governments have begun releasing details they’ve learned from PG&E.

Placer County said the shutoff will darken portions of the county “from Lincoln to Donner Summit.” The El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office said nearly 50,000 residents could be affected by a weekend shutoff. The Alameda County sheriff’s department said 57,000 households in Alameda could lose power, Marin County is expecting 86,813 households will be cut off and Contra Costa County expects the blackout to affect 48,000 customers.

State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, tweeted that PG&E could shut power this weekend to more than 170,000 households and businesses in his district alone — an area that includes Marin, Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino counties

PG&E meteorologist Scott Strenfel at a press conference Thursday said wind gusts in some higher elevations could hit 80 mph during the weekend, with the utility expecting “the strongest offshore winds that we’ve seen in years.” Brendon Rubin-Oster, a forecaster with the NWS, told The Sacramento Bee that gusts could reach 70 mph “in the canyons, the ranges, the mountain passes” of Northern California.

The weather service has issued high wind watches, fire weather watches and red flag warnings that encompass virtually all of the Sacramento Valley, the greater Bay Area and parts of the Sierra Nevada foothills, most of them starting Saturday morning or afternoon and lasting through late Sunday.

Meanwhile in Southern California, strong Santa Ana winds have led the 4,300-acre Tick Fire burning in Los Angeles County to threaten about 10,000 structures as of Thursday evening. More than 40,000 residents were under evacuation orders as of 7 a.m. Friday due to the Tick Fire, according to Cal Fire’s latest incident update.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee

Michael McGough anchors The Sacramento Bee’s breaking news reporting team, covering public safety and other local stories. A Sacramento native and lifelong capital resident, he interned at The Bee while attending Sacramento State, where he earned a degree in journalism.