Winds as fast as 94 mph sped through parts of Northern California Sunday and Monday, prompting red flag warnings through parts of the state that have already been damaged by a record wildfire year.
Daniel Berlant, assistant deputy director of Cal Fire, said the gusts were so high, that they resembled “hurricane-level winds.”
But on the west coast, the worry isn’t hurricanes — it’s wildfires. And those high winds across the state have led to extreme fire danger.
As a result of the gusts, 27 fires ignited Sunday night, Berlant says. All but two are contained. Today, a smaller blaze in the Eldorado National Forest started as well as a 7,200-acre fire in Orange County.
Here's a look at some of the peak wind gusts observed throughout the region over the past 24 hours. Gusts in the Sierra hit the 50 to 70+ mph with strong winds continuing at this hour.— NWS Sacramento (@NWSSacramento) October 26, 2020
A more thorough list of winds can be found here: https://t.co/DQGTWmtVRB #CAwx #CAfire pic.twitter.com/hdqNVsYVwE
The winds that are fueling the fires are coming from offshore and are fairly routine for late autumn — dry with very little humidity.
With little rain this summer and fall, the gusts are meeting dry fuels on the ground. That’s why Berlant says it’s imperative that a spark doesn’t ignite because the conditions are perfect for fires to rage.
It’s also why PG&E cut power to more than 300,000 customers from Santa Cruz to the Northern Sierra Nevada foothills. In the past few years, the utility’s electric equipment has sparked massive fires, including the 2018 Camp Fire, which leveled an entire town and killed 86 people.
The windy conditions are expected to slow, but continue deep into Tuesday — although the gusts are supposed do die down to around 30 mph — and the moisture in the air is supposed to drop in parts of Northern California to as little a 4%, said Scott Rowe, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sacramento.
“Temperature is one thing, but relative humidity is really where it matters in terms of fire potential,” he said.
That’s why the red flag warning for the Sacramento region is in place until Tuesday at 5 p.m., Rowe says.
“These fuels in the wild lands are at record dry levels we haven't seen before,” he said. “Effectively fire season will continue until we're able to get meaningful precipitation across the Golden State and unfortunately that is not anywhere on the horizon.”
Berlant is concerned that fires like the August Complex, which has been burning since August, could get out of control if the winds continue to pick up, despite nearing containment.
“If a new fire breaks out, they will also allow that new fire to grow very rapidly,” he said. “It only takes one ember to be picked up by the wind carried over the containment lines and allow these fires to take back off.”
The dry and windy weather are very similar conditions that led to blazes in recent history — just think of the Tubbs Fire in 2017 and the Kinkade Fire in 2019.
Berlant says he’s noticed a trend over the past few years that the latter part of October is when the state has begun to witness significant wind events that help wildfires grow. (Read more about how scientists predicted that fire season would extend deeper into autumn.)
He says after the winds die down the red flag warnings will lift, but says that “Southern California will remain at an above-average potential for large wildfires into November and even to December. So 2020’s fire season is easily going to roll right into 2021.”
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