The worst kind of weather for wildfires — strong, gusty winds and very low humidity — was expected to return Tuesday after a relative respite Monday, the National Weather Service said, raising the prospect of more fire outbreaks and rapid growth of the blazes that are already burning.
The agency posted “red flag” warnings for most of Northern California and much of Southern California, taking effect at various times Tuesday.
Forecasters were predicting winds between 50 mph and 70 mph in Los Angeles County and Ventura County starting late Tuesday and continuing Wednesday and Thursday, with some gusts up to 80 mph in the mountainous areas of Los Angeles County, the National Weather Service said. The scale for Category 1 hurricanes begins at 74 mph.
The winds, known as Santa Anas in the southern part of the state and Diablos in the north, arrive regularly in the fall. Recent research suggests that as the climate warms, Santa Ana winds may become less frequent. Coupled with precipitation changes, that could mean more intense fires later in the year.
Red-flag weather has played an important role in driving the growth of the Kincade, Getty and other fires and has prompted preemptive blackouts by utility companies hoping to keep wind-damaged power lines and equipment from touching off more blazes.
The Kincade has burned through 75,000 acres and was 15% contained Tuesday afternoon, officials said. Two firefighters were injured while battling the blaze, one of whom was airlifted to the University of California, Davis hospital for treatment of serious burns. The firefighter was in stable condition, the authorities said.
Evacuees and residents were expected to face freezing temperatures overnight Tuesday in the inland valleys, the National Weather Service said.
The Getty fire was caused by an ‘act of God.’
The Getty fire, which has prompted the evacuation of more than 7,000 homes in Southern California, started when a branch broke off a tree and hit nearby power lines — an accident that Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles called an “act of God.”
The power lines began to spark and ignited nearby brush, Garcetti said at a news conference Tuesday afternoon. He said investigators had not found any evidence that faulty equipment started the fire.
The fire, which has burned at least 650 acres and was 15% contained, broke out shortly after 1:30 a.m. Monday along the major freeway known as the 405, near the Getty Center. It quickly spread through neighborhoods north of Brentwood, destroying 12 homes and damaging five more.
The authorities determined the cause in part after seeing dashcam footage that showed an explosion on the side of the road early Monday, Garcetti said.
Earlier Tuesday, Garcetti thanked residents who had remained away from their homes in the evacuation area. He said that firefighters had extinguished some flare-ups, and he warned that higher winds expected in the evening could pick up embers from the fire and deposit them on houses in the evacuation area, possibly igniting them while residents who did not evacuate were sleeping.
That danger was reiterated by Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas, who said that hot embers have been known to carry for miles on the wind. “Our goal today is to increase containment as much as possible,” he said, adding that he was “very concerned about tonight’s wind event.”
PG&E will compensate customers for an earlier blackout.
Pacific Gas and Electric said Tuesday that it would issue rebates to customers affected by the intentional blackout that began Oct. 9, addressing a request made repeatedly by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
The rebate, $100 for residential customers and $250 for small businesses, is a one-time adjustment tied to the power cutoff, which was carried out as a fire-prevention measure and left 738,000 customers in the dark.
No decision has been made about rebates for subsequent outages, including one imposed over the weekend and another wave that began Tuesday morning.
On Saturday, PG&E cut power to 970,000 customers — the equivalent of almost 3 million people — as high winds blew across Northern and Central California, with gusts in some places reaching 102 mph. Of those customers, the company said, about 400,000 remained without power Tuesday and may not regain it before the new round of blackouts hits their areas.
PG&E said about 597,000 customers would be affected by the outage that began Tuesday as fiercer winds moved through the state. The conditions were expected to continue through midday Wednesday.
Even with the power cutoffs this month, the utility’s equipment is a suspected cause at least four wildfires, including the Kincade fire in Sonoma County.
Cowboy 911 rescues livestock and other animals.
Groups of volunteers in Northern California have spent days aiding in livestock and animal rescue since the start of the Kincade fire, lending their physical skills, expertise and equipment.
Among them are team of wranglers known as Cowboy 911.
What started as a Facebook group of 1,500 people last summer has turned into a sprawling network of 28,000 members.
“When I set up the group, I wasn’t even thinking about things like wildfires,” said Justin Jones, a 38-year-old horse trainer. Instead, he formed Cowboy 911 thinking it could be a resource for community members stuck in smaller situations, like if the wheels fell off an animal trailer and someone needed a hand.
But California and its wildfire seasons, which have become increasingly destructive in recent years, had different plans for the group. Last year, its members responded to calls during the Carr and Camp fires, helping to rescue — by Jones’ account — more than 5,000 animals between the two fires. Its Facebook wall now serves as a message board, connecting people during natural disasters.
Jill Lasaley Pierre, the group’s co-founder and Jones’ wife, said they had been responding to a lot of goat rescues, as well as ones for horses, sheep and llamas.
On Tuesday morning, she dispatched the team to the Middletown area, after receiving a request at around midnight from a woman who was located just on the edge of the evacuation line. The woman said she had five horses but only two trailers, which meant she would have had to leave some of her horses behind.
To box in fires, crews chop trees and yank roots.
It is an arresting scene, the dangers unimaginable: firefighters clad in yellow and green flame-resistant uniforms, battling a wind-whipped and fast-moving blaze with what amount to farming and logging tools.
Fighting fires — including immense untamed wildfires — requires a combination of brutal force, endurance and skill. From the air, firefighters may release water and retardant, which can slow a fire’s spread but will not extinguish the raging flames. The most effective man-made way to contain a wildfire is to box it inside buffer zones that are absent of everything that burns — a laborious, intense pursuit that requires clearing the land.
Members of a 20-person crew work in a line, hacking at the hardened ground, chopping down trees, yanking out roots and sawing down undergrowth. It is a carefully choreographed ballet, where one person’s movements affect the next’s.
“Imagine, if you can, 16-hour days of manual labor where you’re hustling all the time, and you do it oftentimes for 14 days straight,” said Doug Harwood, a firefighter in the city of Prescott, Arizona, who spent years fighting wildfires in the Western United States.
The mechanics of the job have not changed considerably since 1910, when a monster wildfire known as the Big Burn devoured 3 million acres and killed 85 people across three Northwestern states, and a U.S. Forest Service ranger named Ed Pulaski returned from obscurity a handy tool that can both dig soil and chop wood.
The Pulaski, as it is known, combines an ax and an adz in one head and is arguably the most important piece of equipment in wildfire suppression.
Alan Sinclair, who commands one of 16 teams trained to manage the most challenging wildfires in the United States, said team leaders have to weigh the risks of clearing land when flames may be racing toward them. At some point, it may be too risky, he said.
Communities can help, he said, by working together to create buffer zones around them, what is known as “defensible space,” before a fire strikes.
“It’s really hard for firefighters to go into an area where no work has been done and be expected to save the neighborhood,” Sinclair said.
Naming a wildfire is easier than containing it.
As ashen skies, raging wildfires and blackouts blanket areas of Northern and Southern California, many residents and evacuees are relying on Twitter hashtags for up-to-date information about their homes, loved ones, road closures and further evacuations.
Over the past week, “Kincadefire,” “Gettyfire,” “Tickfire,” “Skyfire” and “Sawdayfire”— the names of the wildfires — have become popular search terms on social media. But often there is confusion as to where their names come from.
As opposed to the predetermined list of names provided for hurricanes, wildfires are named by officials according to the location or local landmark, including streets, lakes and mountains, where the fire broke out. Fires often go without names if they are too small.
“Quickly naming the fire provides responding fire resources with an additional locator and allows fire officials to track and prioritize incidents by name,” Cal Fire said.
If there is a long human presence in the area, there’s no challenge in finding a name — officials just draw from geographically local, named landmarks, according to Susie Kocher, a natural resources adviser at the University of California.
The 2003 San Diego Cedar fire, one of the largest wildland fires in state history, unsurprisingly spread across the Cedar Creek Falls area. It burned over 270,000 acres, destroyed more 2,200 homes and killed 14 civilians and one firefighter.
But when it comes to naming there are always weird exceptions. The 416 Fire, for example, burned more than 50,000 acres in Colorado in 2018. Why 416? According to the Durango Interagency Dispatch Center, it was after a “system-generated number” that represented the 416th “incident” in the San Juan National Forest that year.
Another curious choice was in 2015, when fire officials in southeast Idaho ran out of naming ideas following the outbreak of a swarm of fires. For a fire with few landmarks nearby, they went with “Not Creative.”