Officials investigating the roles of wind and power lines in Northern California wildfires

There is no doubt that after numerous wildfires started Sunday night October 8 north of San Francisco the very strong winds caused them to spread so rapidly that there is no way firefighters could put them out before they grew large. There are reports that the Tubbs Fire between Santa Rosa and Napa burned about 20,000 acres in a few hours.

Many power lines blew down or sparked as electrical conductors brushed together in Sonoma and Napa Counties.

According to the Mercury News:

Emergency dispatchers in Sonoma County received multiple calls of power lines falling down and electrical transformers exploding. In all, according to a review of emergency radio traffic by the Bay Area News Group, Sonoma County dispatchers sent out fire crews to at least 10 different locations across the county over a 90-minute period starting at 9:22 pm to respond to 911 calls and other reports of sparking wires and problems with the county’s electrical system amid high winds.

Officials have not released the causes of most of the fires, but the stock price of Pacific Gas and Electric which supplies electrical power to much of the area dropped 22 percent last week.

Stock price of PG&E
Stock price of PG&E, last two years. CNBC graphic.

On Monday the Cliff Mass Weather and Climate Blog, an excellent source for in-depth analysis of weather events, looked at the conditions that led to the extreme winds when the fires started. Here is an excerpt:

…Although there have been a lot of media reports about windy conditions, few have described the extreme, often unprecedented, nature of the winds on Sunday night and Monday morning (October 8/9th).   Some have even mocked PG&Es claims of hurricane-force winds, suggesting wind speeds of 30-40 mph.

Let’s clarify a few things.  There was a wide range of winds that night, with the strongest winds on ridge tops and on the upper lee slopes of terrain.  Some winds was startling.

For example, at 10:30 PM on 9 Oct 2017 the wind gusted to 96 mph on a 3400 foot peak NE of Geyersville, about 20 miles NNW of downtown Santa Rosa. They reported sustained 74 knots (85 mph).  Those are hurricane force winds (sustained of 64 knots or more).

At the Santa Rosa RAWS station (U.S Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management) at 576 ft elevation, the wind accelerated rapidly Sunday night to 68 mph.

wind forecast northern california fires
Desert Research Institute’s forecast model (WRF) at very high resolution (2-km grid spacing). This is their 6-hour forecast for sustained surface winds at 11 PM Sunday October 8. Click to enlarge.

San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E) is still battling over who will pay for the destruction, the company or their customers, caused by the Witch Creek, Guejito, and Rice Canyon fires in 2007 that started from issues with their power lines. The fires destroyed more than 1,300 homes in southern California, killed two people, and caused massive evacuations. The Witch Creek Fire alone, which started near Santa Ysabel, burned 197,990 acres.

In 2009 SDG&E proposed to implement a system of completely turning off power preemptively to areas where very strong winds are predicted.

Berkeley firefighters film their arrival into the Northern California firestorm

An engine crew from the Berkeley Fire Department shot video as they arrived at the Tubbs Fire which had already burned into Santa Rosa destroying hundreds of homes. They were part of a five-engine strike team that had been told to stage at a K-Mart parking lot but when they arrived the store was engulfed in flames.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to David.
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A perspective on Northern California wildfires from the eyes and lens of a fire photographer

On October 14 fire photographer Jeff Zimmerman wrote about what he had seen after spending time on the wildfires in Northern and Southern California. These photos were taken by him.

By Jeff Zimmerman

I would not have believed it if I had not seen it for myself, nearly 5,700 homes destroyed, 34 fatalities, dozens of commercial buildings destroyed in a multi-day wind driven inferno pushed by hot dry diablo winds in the scenic Northern California bay area. Dry offshore winds compressed by the narrow canyons rushed down into Santa Rosa at well over 60 mph, sending swirling fire brands for great distances into residential areas, not normally prone to wildfires, just two miles north of town center. In the upper canyon along Tubbs Road in the timber and brush I could clearly see that a downed power line may have sparked a wildfire fire at night in the winds, but in the City of Santa Rosa which sustained massive structural loss to this intensity it was hard to believe.  The Tubbs Fire raced down Potter Creek Road with alarming rates of spread, within a few hours firefighters estimated the fire at 20,000 acres.

Photo by Jeff Zimmerman
Photo by Jeff Zimmerman

The Coffey Park area just east of the 101 freeway in the City of Santa Rosa, a homey housing tract of single family dwellings is wiped off the map; the Journeys End Mobile Home Park destroyed, Santa Rosa seemingly to take the direct brunt of the LNU fire complex. To the north, Mendocino was hard hit with a family losing their teenage son in the driveway as the mother had to have her legs amputated from running through the fire to escape. How do you ever survive something that horrible? It will be singed in the survivor’s minds forever.

People have underestimated the power of wildfires for years, it won’t happen to me is the mindset of many.  They argue about prescribed burning and air pollution, brush removal destroys habitat, logging is unsightly, the list goes on and on. It takes a massive disaster to get things done unfortunately, better building codes, better water systems, wider roads, fire sprinkler ordinances, better brush clearance is needed; the blue – ribbon panels reports have already explained this after other massive fires in California foothill communities.

Northern California is still in flames, Calistoga, Geyserville, Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, Nevada and Butte Counties all have fires, over 160,000 acres, with fatality lists growing by the day, possibly as many 5,700 homes destroyed, 75 cell towers destroyed, and scores upon scores of cars on scores of incinerated streets.  Loved ones missing, their dreams, property and many souls never to return; all destroyed in minutes. It is hard to wrap your mind around it; to examine it is difficult at best, to live through it, terrifying.

Photo by Jeff Zimmerman
Photo by Jeff Zimmerman

A burning wheel chair curb-side set the tragic tone, burnt cars trapped behind downed power poles with car doors flung in the open position still smoldering, roofs on top of hillside homes still burning several days after the main blaze roared through town. A disaster for learning most certainly, but the lessons will come hard. It will take years for families to negotiate with insurance adjusters, to get architectural drawings, negotiate with contractors, get water, sewer and power lines back, some may never try to rebuild at all. For those families who lost everything it will be hard to sift through the debris before having their lots cleared. Many lessons can be learned from the Oakland Hills fire, they will need to have extreme patience. The scars in their minds will never go away, even once their homes are rebuilt, you just don’t forget a fire like this. It will be hard to rise like the phoenix amidst the ash pits of total destruction.

Nighttime fires under sinister diablo winds, very short notification if any to evacuate.  People burned alive in their driveways and furiously burning homes as fires with explosive rates of spread devoured everything in their path.  At least 12 large wind driven urban interface fires have caused 20,000 people to flee in the dark of night as scores of homes were razed to the ground.   Live- stock, pets, wildlife all killed in the flames. Wineries in the foothills destroyed, hospitals with critical patients evacuated in amongst the flames. All too much for the mind to fathom at one time in just a few days.

To the south, Santa Ana winds pushed fires into Orange County neighborhoods on October 9-10 along the 91 and 241 freeways. The fire jumped the 241 Toll Road and ran directly into hillside homes on the bluffs that overlook the valley.  A fire that destroyed 24 homes in an hour right before my very eyes. By nightfall the winds subside and the Canyon 2 Fire slowed to a crawl.  Swirling smoke, fire whirls, ember cast, with fire leap frogging from canyon to canyon. Unbelievable rates of spread and long range spotting, just another day covering spot news.

Setting down the camera on several occasions and picking up garden hoses to extinguish hundreds of spot fires, training police officers on site how to tackle incipient blazes to keep homes from burning, a day to remember.

The fire weather forecast as of this quick writing calls for more Santa Ana winds in Southern California, and diablo winds in Northern California putting the entire State into Red Flag Warning.  I thought I would share some of my thoughts and images from Santa Rosa with you all. We are not out of the woods by any stretch of the imagination. Strikes teams of fire equipment are moving up and down the State in order to prepare for the worst. Get ready, Get set, Go! Words to live by today.

Photo by Jeff Zimmerman
Photo by Jeff Zimmerman

Jeff Zimmerman photographs fires and writes about them, usually from Southern California.

Northern California fires — hot and dry conditions Monday, but decreasing winds

At least 40 people have been confirmed dead in Northern California fires.

Above: Map showing the perimeters of the Pocket, Tubbs, Nuns, and Atlas Fires in northern California. CAL FIRE October 15, 2017.

(Published October 16, 2016)

Firefighters in Northern California are having some success on portions of the four largest wildfires near Geyserville, Santa Rosa, and Napa. However winds out of the southwest on Sunday caused the fires to spread on the northeast sides on all of the fires except the Atlas Fire which has been much quieter than the other three for the last two days.

Officials say 102,000 residents were either evacuated or had no homes to return to Saturday and Sunday in Sonoma County. Some evacuations were lifted late Sunday. Less than 2,000 stayed in evacuation centers.

firefighters map california

The fires in Sonoma and Napa counties have destroyed 3,947 structures. Approximately 4,230 personnel are fighting the blazes.

Officials report that 40 people have been confirmed dead in Northern California fires over the last week including fires in Mendocino County and near Yuba City.

  • Pocket Fire: 11,889 acres north of Geyserville. It continues to grow to the east and northeast.
  • Tubbs Fire, 44,481 acres. The most active area of the fire is still the northeastern portion around Red Hill and Mount Saint Helena. It continues to make short uphill runs on the north side of the peaks.
  • Nuns Fire, 48,627 acres. The northern portion 6 miles north of Calistoga grew to the north Sunday.
  • Atlas Fire, 51, 057 acres. It is much quieter than the other three fires.
McClellan Air Tanker Base
Air tankers at the McClellan Air Tanker Base. CAL FIRE photo.

The National Weather Service predicts hot and dry conditions for the Santa Rosa area Monday with a high of 88 degrees, relative humidity in the mid-teens, and west or southwest winds of 2 to 9 mph.

Tuesday should bring better conditions for firefighters; 81 degrees, 28 percent RH, and southwest winds at 3 to 11 mph.

map photo satellite wildfires north of San Francisco
Satellite photo taken during the afternoon of October 15, 2017 showing smoke from wildfires north of San Francisco. The red dots represent heat.

Northern California wildfires claim 31 lives and 137,000 acres

Above: map showing four of the larger wildfires north of San Francisco: Pocket Fire, Tubbs Fire, Nuns Fire, and Atlas Fire. They were mapped Thursday night between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. PDT.

(Originally published at 11:28 a.m. PDT October 13, 2017)

Calmer winds and higher humidity on Thursday slowed wildfires burning north of San Francisco in Sonoma and Napa Counties, allowing firefighters to make progress toward containment, but each of the large blazes still added thousands of acres to their footprints.

Statewide in California there are 17 active wildfires that have burned a total of 221,754 acres. Approximately 8,000 firefighters are battling the blazes and thousands of residents have evacuated. At least 3,500 homes have been destroyed this week according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The death toll has risen to 31 and many people are unaccounted for.

Here is a closer look at the four largest fires in Sonoma and Napa Counties, working north to south. The sizes were updated by mapping flights Thursday night and total about 137,000 acres:

  • The Pocket Fire northeast of Geyserville and southeast of Cloverdale has grown to 9,996 acres. It was most active on the southeast side Thursday.
  • The 34,617-acre Tubbs Fire has burned at least 2,800 homes and many commercial buildings in Santa Rosa and Sonoma County. It did not expand much on Thursday, but was fairly active in some areas on the north and northeast sides. The fire is also burning in Napa County and is on both sides of Highways 128 and 101.
  • The Nuns Fire has merged with the Adobe and Norrbom Fires between Highways 116 and 121 — north, northwest, and east of Sonoma in both Napa and Sonoma Counties. The combined blaze now covers 44,381 acres. It was active on Friday northeast of the city of Sonoma and on the east flank in Napa County.
  • The Atlas Fire has burned 48,228 acres and is 17 miles long and about 6 miles wide. It is southeast, east, and north of Napa, primarily in Napa County.

The strong winds that have driven the fires decreased Friday, but Red Flag Warning conditions will return Friday night and Saturday with 20 to 30 mph northeast winds gusting at 40 to 50 mph. Isolated gusts up to 60 are possible on the highest ridges and peaks. The humidity will be in the teens during the day and between 25 and 35 percent at night.

The Red Flag Warning is in effect from 5 p.m. PDT Friday until 11 p.m. Saturday.

In the video below, Tanker 944, a 747, drops on the Pocket Fire.

Map Tubbs, Nuns Atlas Fires
Map of the Tubbs, Nuns, and Atlas Fires.

80,000 acres in 18 hours: Damage from historic California wine country wildfires comes into focus

(Originally published at 8:33 p.m. PDT October 9, 2017)

(Above: Map showing the location of the wildfires in Northern California. The red dots represent heat detected by a satellite at 12:54 p.m. PDT October 9, 2017. The yellow dots were detected in the previous 24 hours. Map compiled by Wildfire Today)

Monday marked the latest chapter in a book of unforgettable Octobers for California residents and firefighters alike, right next to the especially devastating fall months in 2003 and 2007.

The region was different this time — wine country of Northern California as opposed to the chaparral-dotted hillsides straddling the U.S-Mexico border near San Diego that bore witness to the Cedar and Witch fires, among the state’s most costly and destructive wildfires.

Throughout Monday, the similarities were coming into focus nonetheless.

Fanned by winds gusting in excess of 50 mph, upward of a dozen wildfires erupted Sunday night in the hills north of San Francisco and west of Sacramento. Already under a red flag warning, thousands of residents who went to bed Sunday gearing up for another week instead woke in the middle of the night and raced through ember-filled streets in a desperate effort to escape.

By morning, the scale of the fires was yet to be seen.

Hour by hour, the scope of the disaster came into focus.

By evening, the numbers were striking. In less than 24 hours, 15 wind-whipped fires in nine counties ignited and blackened more than 73,000 acres in less than 24 hours, according to CAL FIRE.

Among the three largest fires, based on CAL FIRE’s afternoon update: 

  • Atlas Fire in Napa County: 25,000 acres
  • Tubbs Fire in Napa County: 25,000 acres
  • Redwood Complex (Redwood and Potter fires) in Mendocino County: 19,000 acres

Several other fires ranging in size from a few acres to thousands also burned out of control into Monday evening.

More than 2,000 homes were destroyed, according to the governor’s office, and at least 10 people were killed with many more reportedly having suffered injuries. Many more were reported missing, and the death toll will almost certainly rise as operations transition to search and recovery.

Many of the fires remained 0 percent contained, despite the efforts of hundreds of firefighters from crews across the state.

A 747 Supertanker was among those resources assisting teams on the ground. By 6 p.m. PDT on Monday the aircraft had conducted six sorties, dropping over 110,000 gallons of retardant mostly in the Napa area. Many other air tankers and helicopters were also very busy slowing down the fires, where possible, with water and retardant.

A clearer picture of the damage is expected in coming days. But those visuals thus far, of lush vinyards and go-to wineries leveled, mobile home parks and up-scale neighborhoods both decimated, and even more damage expected as a red flag warning lingers into Tuesday.

Gov. Jerry Brown on Monday declared a state of emergency for several affected counties and also requested a Presidential Major Disaster Declaration to support state and local responses on the heels of an emergency proclamation issued for Napa, Sonoma and Yuba counties.

Mr. Brown’s major disaster declaration request in part:

“These fires have forced thousands of Northern California residents to immediately evacuate their homes and seek temporary shelter in order to save their lives. Many residents had little time to flee due to the fires’ rapid and erratic rate of spread through the rural terrain. Tragically, these fires have already taken lives and emergency responders anticipate the number of fatalities could grow.

The devastation and disruption caused by these fires is extraordinary. Thousands have been made homeless. Many school remain closed. Major roads were damaged or destroyed. The fire destroyed utility poles causing the loss of power to over 38,000 residents. These fires have destroyed and continue to threaten critical infrastructure, including 80 communication towers, impacting essential services for thousands of people…”

 

Fires in Southern California from years past were known for their fast, yet steady, rate of growth over the span of several days — perhaps the biggest distinction between this week’s fires to the north that exploded overnight.

Still, there’s the potential for even greater growth and destruction through the week. Winds are forecast to ease on Tuesday morning, but dry conditions will continue with highs in the mid-to-upper 70s and 80s by the weekend, according to the National Weather Service.