High winds, dry air, low humidity combine to create 'dangerous fire weather event' for California through Tuesday

Jordan Culver, USA TODAY

Powerful winds are expected to blow through parts of California on Sunday night into Monday, setting up extreme fire conditions in a state already reeling from a devastating fire season.

The conditions caused by the strong winds, low humidity and dry fuels will be some of the most dangerous of this year, and are “uncomfortably similar” to the circumstances that led to other destructive fires including 2019’s Kincade Fire, 2018’s Camp Fire and the Wine Country Fires of 2017, according to the National Weather Service.

Some gusts could top 70 mph, said Jim Mathews, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sacramento.

"This is our severe weather season right now: fire weather," Mathews said.

A large swath of northern California is under an "extreme" fire weather threat, according to the NWS. The area surrounding the extreme threat is under a "critical" threat. The remaining area has an "elevated" threat.

“Any new ignitions will be present in an environment that will promote rapid, explosive, and dangerous spread of fire,” NWS Sacramento wrote Sunday.

An air tanker drops retardant on the Olinda Fire burning in Anderson, Calif., Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020. The blaze was one of four fires burning near Redding that firefighters scrambled to stop as high winds buffeted Northern California. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
An air tanker drops retardant on the Olinda Fire burning in Anderson, Calif., Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020. The blaze was one of four fires burning near Redding that firefighters scrambled to stop as high winds buffeted Northern California. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

The weather service added: “While Fire Season 2020 has already been historic from the countless lightning- based ignitions in August, remember that peak offshore wind season is right now for much of the Golden State. Be safe and vigilant during this extremely high-impact and particularly dangerous fire weather event.

The most susceptible area of the state is the “west slope of the Sierra Nevada,” Mathews said.

“That’s kind of more lightly populated,” he told USA TODAY on Sunday. “I think the concern, overnight and into tomorrow morning, would be the San Francisco Bay Area.”

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Pacific Gas and Electric Company cut power to thousands of homes as a precaution ahead of the dangerous conditions, which are expected to continue into early Tuesday. In a news release, PG&E said the outages, called “Public Safety Power Shutoffs,” could impact as many as 361,000 customers across 36 counties and 17 tribal communities.

More than 71,000 Southern California Edison customers are under consideration for precautionary shutoffs as of Sunday evening.

Previous wildfires have weakened and burned trees that might fall down due to the strong winds, Mathews said. Those trees could fall on power lines.

Four new wildfires burned about 300 acres Sunday afternoon in northern California.

The NWS extended a red flag warning into Tuesday due to ongoing low humidity. Dry air from a weather system in the Great Basin will be around for the first half of the week, Mathews said. Winds in the Bay Area will continue into Tuesday.

“What made this situation worse for this year is we had that big lightning outbreak in August and that caused a lot of these large wildfires that we were dealing with in August and into September,” Mathews said.

He added, “This time around… there’s been a lot of work done on those, to contain those fires, so those areas aren’t necessarily impacted, but there’ll be possibly new fire starts.”

More than 8,600 wildfires have burned well over 6,400 square miles and destroyed about 9,200 buildings in California this year. There have been 31 deaths.

Contributing: The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: California braces for 'fire weather' – including 70 mph wind gusts