After a brief break from howling gusts, firefighters in Northern California braced for more ferocious “diablo winds” Saturday, prompting the area’s electrical utility company to warn it may shut down power to nearly 1 million customers in the region to prevent more outbreaks of fire.
The Kincade Fire in the wine-growing county of Sonoma, north of San Francisco, has already destroyed nearly 39 square miles and 49 buildings, including 21 homes, and forced the evacuation of 2,000 people. Geyserville’s entire population of almost 900 people was ordered to leave.
Fire officials said the blaze, which erupted Wednesday near a malfunctioning electrical transmissions tower, is only 10% contained.
Another forecast round of strong winds, with gusts as high as 80 mph in some high elevation areas, raised the specter of both new fires and the expansion of ongoing blazes in the hard-hit region north of San Francisco.
Forecasters warned that dangerous winds up to 80 mph coupled with low humidity could produce “historic” weather conditions Saturday night into Sunday.
“Any fires that develop will likely spread quickly,” according to the weather service.
Although the cause of the Kincade Fire has not been determined, Pacific Gas & Electric told state regulators that one of its lines near where the fire broke out malfunctioned only minutes before the blaze erupted.
To lower the risk of triggering fires in areas with dry vegetation, the utility has enacted a controversial policy of shutting down power when strong winds are forecast. While that cuts off electricity in the immediate threat area, it also affects residents in areas farther away that are not threatened by fire.
PG&E principal meteorologist Scott Strenfel said in a statement that the wind forecast for the weekend “has the potential to be one of the strongest in the last several years.”
“It’s also likely to be longer than recent wind events, which have lasted about 12 hours or less,” he said.
PG&E said it would decide Saturday whether to blackout 850,000 homes and businesses in 36 counties for 48 hours or longer throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, wine country and Sierra foothills.
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The utility said it would not restore power until inspections of de-energized lines are completed and any damage to the system from the high winds is repaired.
High wind also creates logistical problems for firefighters by grounding water-dropping aircraft, dispersing fire retardant and driving hot embers far ahead of the flames to set new blazes, said Cal Fire Division Chief Jonathan Cox.
“You can’t fight a fire that’s spotting ahead of itself a quarter of a mile, half a mile, in some cases a mile ahead of itself,” he said.
To the south, the Tick Fire, which broke out around Santa Clarita near Los Angeles, has already scorched 6 square miles and was 10% contained.