Oct 24, 2020 - Science

Northern California authorities fear "strongest" winds of 2020 will fuel fires

 A burned truck is seen as Satchel MacLennan surveys the damage to his family's property in Last Chance, Calif.
A burned truck at property in Last Chance, California, this month. Photo: Jane Tyska/Digital First Media/East Bay Times via Getty Images

The National Weather Service issued a "Red Flag" alert for much of Northern California Sunday through Monday, warning that damaging winds and low humidity will create "extreme fire weather conditions."

Why it matters: Authorities fear the expected weather conditions will bring more devastating fires to the state, which is already experiencing a record fire year, with more than 8,600 fires burning over 4.1 million acres and killing at least 31 people, per Cal Fire.

The state of play: The National Weather Service in Sacramento warned in a message on Saturday that the forecasted wind event is expected to be "the strongest" of the year so far.

  • The NWS said it expects winds to range from 20-30 mph, with gusts of up to 70 mph.
  • Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) announced late Friday that it has notified some 466,000 customers across 38 counties that it will proactively turn off power early Sunday morning due to the expected conditions.
  • "Extremely dry, windy conditions with high gusts pose an increased risk for damage to the electric system that has the potential to ignite fires in areas with critically dry vegetation," PG&E said, adding that it work quickly to restore power as conditions improve.
  • “Initial forecasts indicate this could be our largest [Public Safety Power Shutoff] event this year so far," said Michael Lewis, PG&E’s interim president in a statement.
  • Cal Fire, meanwhile, said it has increased staffing in anticipation for the critical weather event. More than 5,300 firefighters are already working towards full containment on 21 wildfires across California, 12 of which remain major incidents, it added.

The big picture: The western part of the U.S. has experienced a particularly brutal wildfire year.

  • Per the National Interagency Fire Center, more than 46,681 fires have burned over 8.6 million acres across the U.S. About 44,000 fires had charred nearly 4.5 million acres at this time last year.
  • Firefighters are fighting massive blazes in Colorado, with unprecedented weather conditions contributing to the fires' spread. Three of the four biggest fires in the state's history — Cameron Peak, Pine Gulch and East Troublesome — have occurred in 2020 alone.

The bottom line: "Extreme caution should be taken to prevent new fire starts. Practice fire weather," NWS-Sacramento told Northern California residents.

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