October 28, 2019 / 9:55 AM / 9 months ago

Firefighters get brief respite from winds fanning California wildfires

HEALDSBURG, Calif., Oct 28 (Reuters) - Fierce winds fanning Californian wildfires are expected to abate on Monday, giving firefighters a chance to corral blazes that have scorched swaths of the picturesque wine country in the north and neighborhoods near Los Angeles in the south.

But forecasters with the National Weather Service (NWS) said high winds would return later in the week and could be the strongest so far this year in the south of the state.

"Most of the high wind and red flag warnings in the north expire about 11 a.m. today," said Marc Chenard, a forecaster with the NWS's Weather Prediction Center.

"Right now there are gusts of 35-55 mph," he said on Monday. "But those will abate at midday. They're going to get a break."

In the south, winds will abate a little later in the afternoon, he said.

"But late Tuesday through Thursday, the winds are back and in some areas can be more extreme than before," he said. "We have the potential for the strongest Santa Ana (southern) winds of the year."

Wind gusts can be between 50-to-60 mph, with some significantly higher, he said. "It's going to be bad."

The northern California wine country has borne the brunt of the fires, with 84 square miles (21,756 hectares) burned and 190,000 people evacuated in the so-called Kincade fire.

Only about 5% of that fire was contained early on Monday after crews lost ground against the wind-driven wildfire a day earlier.

About 3,000 people were battling the Kincade Fire, the worst of more than a dozen major blazes that have damaged or destroyed nearly 400 structures and prompted Governor Gavin Newsom to declare a statewide emergency.

"All hands are focusing on the Kincade," Newsom told reporters after meeting residents at an evacuation center in the Sonoma County city of Petaluma, calling the blaze "the most stubborn challenge we face".

Investigators have not yet said what they believed caused the blaze, although it ignited near a broken wire on a Pacific Gas & Electric transmission tower.


High wind forecasts prompted utility Pacific Gas & Electric Corp to shut off power to about 940,000 customers in 43 counties on Saturday night to guard against the risk of touching off wildfires.

But PG&E Expects to issue a weather "All Clear" for safety inspections and restoration work to begin early Monday morning for Northern Sierras and North Coast, the company announced early Monday.

The governor has been sharply critical of PG&E, saying corporate greed and mismanagement kept it from upgrading its infrastructure while wildfire hazards have steadily worsened over the past decade. PG&E, which filed for bankruptcy in January citing billions of dollars in civil liabilities from deadly wildfires sparked by its equipment in 2017 and 2018, says it has since remedied problems experienced with its website and customer call center.

Newsom said crews had largely "gotten their arms around" the Tick Fire near the city of Santa Clarita, some 35 miles (56 km) north of downtown Los Angeles, which has charred 4,615 acres (1,868 hectares) and destroyed 22 structures since Thursday.

Most of the more than 40,000 residents ordered to evacuate were allowed to return home by Saturday afternoon, the county fire department said. (Reporting by Stephen Lam in Healdsburg, Calif., additional reporting by Steve Gorman and Rich McKay; Editing by David Clarke)

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