California Braces for Most Dangerous Fire Weather of 2020

By Mark Chediak and Brian K. Sullivan | October 23, 2020

California is bracing for the most powerful gusts of the 2020 fire season, raising the threat of more blazes and blackouts in a region that’s already seen a record 4.1 million acres scorched this year.

A storm coming off the Pacific into Oregon and Washington will push winds over the Sierra Nevada, where gusts could reach up to 70 miles (112 kilometers) per hour in some isolated canyons, said Eric Kurth, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Sacramento.

“It looks likely to be the strongest event of the year,” Kurth said by telephone. “It looks stronger than any of those ones we have seen.”

The weather raises the prospect that PG&E Corp., the state’s biggest utility, could again shut power this weekend to prevent live wires from sparking blazes, after cutting service Wednesday evening to about 37,000 customers, or about 96,000 people.

If the utility does cut power again, it would be as early as Sunday and the blackouts could be more widespread than the current outages, according to post on its website Thursday.

Much of the U.S. West is under threat from wildfires as dry weather and stiff winds have turned hillsides, forests and scrub land into tinderboxes. In California, blazes this year have killed 31 people and destroyed more than 9,200 homes and businesses. In Utah, a utility is warning it may cut power to avoid fires. And in Colorado, officials have closed Rocky Mountain National Park as firefighters battle nearby flames.

“When it is dry like that, fire grows much quicker,” said Cory Mueller, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Sacramento.

Further to the east, winds ahead of this weekend’s Pacific storm will bring some dangers to Colorado and Utah on Saturday before rain and snow sweeps the region on Sunday, potentially bringing down the curtain on the worst of the fire season in the mountain west, said Dave Houk, a meteorologist with

“This may actually, more or less, put an end to the Colorado fire season,” Houk said. “That is being a little optimistic, but certainly it will be better going forward.”

In Utah, the arid weather has prompted Berkshire Hathaway Inc.’s Rocky Mountain Power to warn it may cut power to about 1,800 customers in Sundance and Summit Park, said Spencer Hall, a spokesman for the utility. “We’re just at a watch status right now and we will watch through the weekend,” he said.

Dry gusts will likely continue across Northern California Thursday. With humidity levels dropping, the air won’t be able to recapture much moisture overnight, Mueller said.

While the winds may slack off a bit Friday, forecasters are warily watching another round of fire-fanning gusts expected to start on Sunday and persist through Monday.

“We’re definitely keeping a close eye on the Sunday-Monday event,” Mueller said. “There is time for the forecast to change, but it is very concerning.”

PG&E had reduced the number of customers that would lose electricity service from an initial estimate of 54,000 homes and businesses in 19 counties to about 32,000 in 9 counties, according to a statement.

PG&E already has turned off the power three times this autumn during dry, windy conditions when tree branches can blow into power lines and start a blaze. The next event could impact parts of the San Francisco Bay Area and the Sierra Nevada foothills, the company said.

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