Firefighters battle the Kincade Fire along Chalk Hill Road in Healdsburg, California on October 27 2019. Picture: AFP/ PHILIP PACHECO
Firefighters battle the Kincade Fire along Chalk Hill Road in Healdsburg, California on October 27 2019. Picture: AFP/ PHILIP PACHECO

Healdsburg — Fierce winds fanning Californian wildfires are expected to abate on Monday, giving firefighters a chance to corral blazes that have scorched swathes of the picturesque wine country in the north and neighbourhoods near Los Angeles in the south.

But forecasters from the National Weather Service (NWS) said high winds would return later in the week and could be the strongest so far in 2019 in the south of the state.

“Most of the high-wind and red-flag warnings in the north expire about 11am today,” said Marc Chenard, a forecaster at the NWS’s Weather Prediction Centre.

“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 50-60 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 21,756ha burnt 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 centre 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, though it ignited near a broken wire on a Pacific Gas & Electric transmission tower.

High wind forecasts prompted utility Pacific Gas & Electric 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 the company expects to issue a weather “all clear” for safety inspections and restoration work to begin early on Monday morning for Northern Sierras and North Coast, the company announced early on Monday.

The governor has been sharply critical of Pacific Gas & Electric, saying corporate greed and mismanagement kept it from upgrading its infrastructure while wildfire hazards have steadily worsened over the past decade. Pacific Gas & Electric, 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 centre.

Newsom said crews had largely “gotten their arms around” the Tick fire near the city of Santa Clarita, about 56km north of downtown Los Angeles, which has charred 1,868ha 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. 

Reuters