Very Serious Wind Situation in Northern California This Weekend

From The Cliff Mass Weather Blog

Friday, October 25, 2019

Looking at the latest forecast model output reveals a scary situation developing over northern California for late Saturday and Sunday, where strong, dry offshore winds will provide a major wildfire hazard.
PG&E will have little choice but to de-energize a large portion of its system, blacking out hundred of thousands of customers.

NASA MODIS satellite image of the Kincade Fire (north of San Francisco) yesterday around noon

NASA MODIS satellite image of the Kincade Fire (north of San Francisco) yesterday around noon

The set up is classic, and the first sign of the event is passing through Washington State at this very moment.   An upper level trough is moving southward overhead, with cold air and higher pressure sweeping into Washington State.  By tomorrow morning (see below) the cold air and high pressure will be at the Oregon/California border (green, while and blue colors are colder temperatures).   Note the large change of pressure at the leading edge of the cold air, such a large change in pressure means strong winds.

The situation Sunday morning (see below) is extremely concerning.  The cold air has strengthened and moved east and south, creating  very large pressure gradients, and thus strong winds, over the Sierra Nevada and northern California.  The perfect set up for strong easterly/northeasterly dry winds over the region…known as Diablo Winds. I have an NSF grant to study these winds and have written a few papers on the subject…so this is of great interest to me.

Let’s look at the latest high-resolution WRF model forecasts over northern CA made by the Desert Research Institute CANSAC group.  This figures will show sustained winds–gusts are 30-50% larger.
The event begins around 11 PM Saturday, as strong northerly winds push southward into the Central Valley and easterly winds begin to rev up on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada.

Six hours later, all hell is breaking loose.  Sustained winds of 50 mph or more are found on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada and on/downstream of some of the higher crests of the terrain north and east of San Francisco (such inthe Sonoma County area in which the Kincade fire is burning).  The strong winds are found in regions of acceleration associated with mountain waves.

The serious situation continues at 11 AM Sunday, perhaps even stronger.

During the subsequent hours, the strong winds begin to decline, but will be strong enough to maintain fires that have already started.  During this event, gusts will certainly reach 70-80 mph in favored regions.  Humidities will be very low.
PG&E will have little recourse but to de-power a large region and that must include the high-voltage, high tension towers.  A failing tower caused the Camp Fire last year and appears to have initiated the Kincade wildfire this week.

One good thing is that PG&E has added hundreds of surface observation sites that provide an extraordinary view of the winds in the region.  To illustrate,  here is the maximum gust map for Thursday, north of San Francisco.  Lots of observations–and you can see the strong winds (75 and 80 mph) associated with the Kincade fire.  Not how winds change very rapidly in short distances.  Very valuable.

91 thoughts on “Very Serious Wind Situation in Northern California This Weekend

    • I love living among trees. On the other hand, there is about zero chance of a forest fire where I live. We don’t get earthquakes. We don’t get hurricanes. Tornadoes seem to stay miles away from my house. There is about zero chance of a flood.

      I wouldn’t live in a forest fire area unless I could build a suitable house and sufficiently landscape the surrounding territory.

    • Actually, the government tried to create a perfect environment for spotted owls, not for people.

      • As I recall, from my days living in So. California, that was done in the Oregon/Washington areas.

      • from what I hear…the northern spotted owls perfect nesting sites…are KMart signs

        ..even the environmentalists that pushed that admitted if it wasn’t the owl…they would have just found something else to block cutting down trees

    • Think if PG&E had just taken all of the money that they spent on wind and solar in the last few decades and buried lines?

      • Think if they took all their corporate tax cut money and spent it on clearing vegetation instead of buying shares back to juice their share prices!

  1. Wait a minute, I thought this was all due to co2? (Sarc) Over here in england drains on the aides of roads are not cleaned and the block the flow of rain water, then when it rains and a road fills with water, the greens shout “climate change” 😐

    My point is its 2019, we are all over this planet, maybe we should learn how to live here properly, and build the proprer infrastructure that we need…

    • Well I did see Gavin Newsom claim that the wildfires are due to climate change as the dry season has been getting longer and drier. Is this the case or not?

    • Absolutely! I lived in So. California from 1964 until 1996. During that time I saw MANY wildfires! The two biggest problems were houses with cedar shake shingles in fire prone areas and the fact people (or building contractors) INSISTED on building houses in areas that were prone to these fires. Everyone likes living in a forest, but the fact is, they are HIGHLY LIKELY to become infernos, especially in the drier seasons. If there is a drought, the odds are off the charts! I tried to warn a new family about moving into a house in the hills, with cedar shakes, and they told me they would face that problem if and when it ever happened. I moved to Illinois not long after that,and read about a huge fire in that very area later! I hope they got out safely. Wildfires and forest fires are nothing to take lightly! It’s the same thing when people build their houses in a river bed! (I saw that, too!) People think that it won’t happen to them!

    • Sunny

      We are currently living in the uk in a relatively benign climate. There have been many documented periods of all sorts of vicious weather in the past. My own records stretch back 1000 years.

      We need to prepare for the weather of tomorrow by looking to the weather of the past . Our infrastructure is not very robust and had it been available at many times in the past it would have been quickly overwhelmed.

      It doesn’t help of course that infrstastructure, such as simple surface drains, are not kept clear. I often push a stick into blocked ones That are causing large puddles. It is very satisfying to watch the water draining away.


      • Tonyb:

        Off topic, but do you have any temperature records for roughly 1310-1320?

        According to Volcanoes of the World, Vol. 3, Tarawera had VEI5 eruptions in 1310, 1311, 1312, 1313, 1314, and 1315. Was this a period of the “vicious weather” that you mentioned?

          • The bad weather lasted until spring 1317 when starvation culminated, but it took several more years before agriculture recovered fully. It is estimated that 10-25% of the population north of the Alps and the Pyrenees perished.

        • Burl

          The weather started breaking down around 1300 from the settled MWP type climate . It is a well documented period because there was a series of battles between the Scots and English affected by bad weather. In 1308 Edward second was married in Boulogne (France) and again there was bad weather and unaccustomed frosts.

          It started to rain in May 1315 and for the next 7 years there followed floods, ice and widespread failure of crops. Some 6 million Europeans died, around one eighth of the population.

          Our local Abbey on the South Coast (Torre Abbey) recorded that by 1370 the climate had deteriorated so much that windows had to be bricked up and cloisters covered over due to increased rain, wind and cold. The wind direction seems to have fundamentally altered in that period.

          Ironically the weather improved in the 1380’s

          • Tonyb:

            Thank you for the detailed information.

            Dimming SO2 aerosols from the 6 annual VEI5 eruptions would have caused enough cooling to explain the lower temperatures at that time. However, they would have eventually settled out, probably within about 5 years, and temperatures should have largely recovered by then.

            There were no further recorded eruptions for 15 years, when there was a VEI4 eruption (Cerro Bravo).

            But, VEI5 eruptions returned again, in 1360, 1362, and 2 Plinian (largest category known) in 1370 (Soufriere) and 1380 (Parker). Not surprising that the cold weather returned!

      • Tonyb, [ you ] often push a stick into blocked ones That are causing large puddles. It is very satisfying to watch the water draining away.

        – to get blocked again as soon as you turn your back on it.

  2. I had been considering moving back to the US from California but had been waiting at least until the US cuts off the foreign aid. I might move sooner.

    • My mother told me that my grandfather, who died in 1938, made three predictions when she was young. He correctly predicted that an economic depression would engulf the country. He nailed it. His second prediction was that another world war would come about. He didn’t live to see it but he nailed it. His third prediction was that California would fall off into the ocean. I wonder if he meant literally or figuratively?

      • Well if you can wait around about 20 million years, the entire land section now west of the San Andreas Fault (San Francisco thru most of So Cal moving @ 2 cm a year) will be about 400 km out into the Pacific Ocean. So he nailed that too.

  3. These winds are not without precedent and are seasonally predictable. The loads on high tension towers should have been unaccounted for and should not be unexpected. These things are listed in “Environmental Loads Reports”.
    It does seem though that tower inspection has been overlooked.

    I surely hope that these tower failures are not the actions of some “Monkey Wrench Gang”, but my rational anchoring bends more this direction:
    “Never attribute to malice that which can be easily explained by incompetence.” – N. Bonaparte

    • The problem is that PG&E, even with 100% inspection of every tower every day can not guarantee there won’t be failure when you have things like idiots using the towers for target practice and sometimes a piece of equipment simply fails no matter how well it has been maintained. Since they can not guarantee there will never be a problem and since there is apparently no limit to their liability if there is a problem, they have no choice but to shut the power off.

      We have no stronger winds than we have ever had and this year has been a cool and fairly wet year. The fundamental problem is that fuel loads surrounding these towers are much greater than they have ever been in the past. That means when a fire does get started, it builds with a ferocity that would have never been seen 40 or 50 years ago and most of these forests were better managed and thinner. Some of these areas have not been logged, thinned, managed at all in the past 20 years or more and haven’t burned either.

      Before the arrival of European settlers we had for probably close to 20,000 years or so 400,000 to 600,000 natives living in the woods with open flame as their only source of heat, light, and cooking. They didn’t have “red flag” days. Fires were frequent and the forests were much thinner. Fires would sweep through quickly at ground level and not build to the ferocity that creates catastrophic canopy fires and get so hot that they sterilize the seeds of even the plants that need fire to reproduce and are fire-adapted.

    • re: “I surely hope that these tower failures are not the actions of some “Monkey Wrench Gang””


      Where have you seen that the “towers” themselves have failed?

      This is not part of what has been in the news. Would appreciate a link to wherever you read this.

      • You are right, _Jim. To date, and to my knowledge, there have been NO tower failures. Failing to spray the towers, especially the insulators, MAY have contributed, or ‘perhaps’, there may have been a spark caused by unsecured metal cables, (or?) something but the towers themselves have not ‘failed’. Some people see what they want to see, even in the face of evidence otherwise.

    • The current kincade fire did start at near a 230,000 VAC transmission line at the same time the line tripped off line. A distant Cal Fire Camera saw rapid flashes of light at the time the line tripped. And then you can see the fire spread from that point. While all the distribution lines in the area were shutoff at the time the winds were not high enough to warrant the shutdown of the transmission line.

      The next morning Cal fire crew directed PG&E to a tower and pointed to a cable called a jumper. The jumper connects two power lines that terminate at an insulator). The Steel tower itself appears undamaged. The power line is 40years old and has been inspected several times in the last few years including a few months ago this year. Now problems were seen in any of these inspections.

      Unfortunately cal fire has only achieved 10% containment so the nearby towns have been evacuated due to the pending winds and blackouts.

      According to google transmission line wire are assumed to have a 80 year life. The utility industry typically replaces the line after a failure or when damage is observed. Only problem is that any unexpected problem with a a lot of fuel in the surrounding forest is almost guarenettied to start a fire.

        • They don’t know. The systems that monitor the line may have detected an open circuit , short circuit and shut id down. We will have to wait for the post fire report. Note when you have a failure at 230,000V most metals at the point of failure will vaporize. So if trash, a twig, helium helium ballon, cracked wire of or failed insulator caused it, much of it won’t now now exist.

  4. Some have been tying this to climate change-this is cold pattern, Not to dismiss the severity.
    But right now I’m on the cold side of this pattern in NE Oregon .it is 39f at 2700ft. Spent time -in October -as an Aerial Firefighter-this is nothing new. but the deterioration of forest conditions, and PG&E malfeasance(and the state) is.

  5. “The situation Sunday morning (see below) is extremely concerning. […] I have an NSF grant to study these winds and have written a few papers on the subject…so this is of great interest to me. [followed by more words about serious and extremely serious].”

    Well there you go. No surprise there, Batman.

  6. Shutting off power to areas experiencing a near by wild fire is crazy.

    Example, how does one get a car out of the garage if the door is closed and they aren’t capable of releasing it from the door opener and lift the door manually?

    No power, no internet and cellphones run dry or can have reception issues so no warning alerts and you could be trapped without any time to react.

    No battery powered radio handy?

    I hope everyone understands how bad this could get and has prepared!

    • This is what happens when you live in a 3rd-world state that can, but chooses not to, take care of itself.

      Sucks to be primitive.

    • Sorry, but every garage door opener I have ever seen had a release so you could EASILY open it manually! The power was being shut down systematically BEFORE the latest fires started. The shut down had nothing to do with the fires! You can blame that on the winds and ‘probably’ someone being careless with their cigarettes or matches. When I lived there you would always see some fool tossing their cigarette out the car window, even on the Red Flag days! Then, there were those individuals who actually START a fire somewhere, perhaps in hopes of getting work, or, in one case, an actual fire chief who was writing a book about fighting the fires! As you can see, NONE of this has anything to do with climate change/global warming!

    • All garage door openers are required to have a manual release. Problem is that most people don’t know about it. And some people have died in there garages due to wild fires.

      Some people are simply physically incapable of manually opening the garage door. I showed my mom how to do it earlier this year. Apparently garage door openers with battery backups have been popular lately.

      • Battery backup is a good idea…doing it for the whole house an even better idea. i bet folks living in the blackout zones wish they had 10kWh of juice stored in a lithium cell in their basement!

      • Our house, on the outskirts of Johannesburg, South Africa, has powered garage doors. We ALSO have frequent power outages. either scheduled as ‘load shedding’, or unscheduled due to poor line maintenance. It turns out that the garage opener battery backup is good for no more than two openings and closings, so the manual release has DEFINITELY been tested! A more important thing, considering that the monopoly fixed-line ‘telco’ is no longer running or maintaining copper wires (they get stolen too often), is that communications are dependent on cell-phones. And the batteries in the cell tower base stations only seem to be good for a few hours (AND they get stolen too). It’s interesting that a part of one of the most advanced countries in the world is being reduced (albeit temporarily) to third-world status!

    • John McClure October 26, 2019 at 11:33 am

      Shutting off power to areas experiencing a near by wild fire is crazy.

      Example, how does one get a car out of the garage if the door is closed and they aren’t capable of releasing it from the door opener and lift the door manually?


  7. We had extreme winds here in Alberta yesterday.
    I had an excellent view of a few thousand snow geese in a field in view from my house. I think they were forced down by the weather as this is much closer to town than where they normally land to rest and feed.
    Looking out my back I see somebodies tarp garage about 15 feet up in a tree.
    I have heard of trucks being blown off the highways.
    Could be climate change but I think it is more likely a normal weather incident that seems to happen on a fairly regular basis in this part of the country. It is damp with a dusting of snow so there is little chance of fire. It just adds a little spice to the conversations about the weather that Canadians love to have. Also a little cleanup to do when the winds die a little more.

    • Very windy across So. Arizona on Friday too ~ 30-40 mph winds all day. But this weekend is magnificent – upper-70’s light winds, and sunny of course. Weather. The human-kind of Canadian snowbirds have already started showing up here ahead of those geese.

      • Yes, I have friends and relatives already there. I may be tempted to visit them for a while this winter. It looks to be a long one and not having a summer doesn’t help.

      • Don’t be to hard on the Canadian snowbirds during the summer the desert birds of Phoenix and Tucson show up here in the White Mountains.

    • Rick,

      [ you ] have heard of trucks being blown off the highways:

      – an unloaded truck is blown from the highway AT ANY wind gusts as long as there’s no load, e.g. staples of empty pallets, is placed near the trucks saddle / the trucks driving axles.

      – the semitrailer planes are a huge “sail surface” that lets the truck immediately loose ground contact.

      And go up, up and away.

    • Is that the only thing? Are you saying CO2 is NOT a GHG?

      My goodness. We’ll have to take another look at 150 years of science now.

  8. Not keeping the vegetation away from the power line right away is simple insanity. Not making sure the lines are tied down so the don’t slap together is negligence. Not keeping the fuel load down near power lines is insanity. Not building roads so during a fire emergence, the roads can support evacuees and firefighter at the same time is negligence. Not have a roadway wide enough to function as a firebreak is stupidity. Allowing house it towns being built ten foot apart is insanity. Not requiring roofs in fire prone areas not being metal is negligence. Having combustibles within 100 foot of a home in the any forest is insanity. Yet in California all others thing are allowed and some are encourage. Why are allowing our high level civilization devolve, who votes for these idiots. My grand fathers home place was in a jack pine forest, it was built in a time before metal roofs, but there was only one tree within a hundred feet of the house and that was true for the barn and granary. the home place was built a hundred years ago. What did he know then that the idiots forgot today.

    • 100% spot on

      I am staggered that anyone uses tar roofs OR wood shakes in this day n age
      wtf? are they NOT thinking?
      corrugated or other profile steel is far better, terracotta etc tiles if youre rich and the roof can take the weight, decent insulation rockwool under it and it saves heaps on cool/heat bills
      and while iron roofed homes do still burn its usuall from eaves unsealed or if you have a decent metal piped spray set you DO have a hance
      as long as you have a well cleared and low combustible space round the home.

    • If you look at the damage they are seeing after a wind event, very little of is due to trees falling on power lines. Most of what they are finding are small branches being ripped off of trees by the wind . The wind carries the branch some distance until it gets tangled in the overhead power lines. Anything that lands on the power lines will ignite and can start a fire.

      In other cases the wires break or the pole simply snaps in a very strong wind gust.

      As I have been typing this the news is reporting a fire started near the freeway (I-80) in Vallejo california just north of the Sanfrancisco bay and appears to have jumped about of miles of open water and ignited another fire in Crokett Ca.

  9. Cliff wrote: “The set up is classic, and the first sign of the event is passing through Washington State at this very moment.”

    From Central Washington State:
    Wind brought a tree down that broke a pole off about 20 feet up.
    At the spot, the lines were crossing from one side to the other of a county road.
    The broken-off top rests over the center yellow line. We got power back in 3 hours.
    They did a re-route. Those close to the damaged pole were off longer.

    Several such wind incidents in the region. Blowing dust caused closure of a few roads.
    Classic, as Cliff wrote.

  10. Mods,
    a long comment post of mine (probably with too many URL’s) is lost somewhere in the spam or bit bucket folders.

    Thanks in advance,

  11. Slightly off topic, but yesterday
    I watched the birds fly south across the Autumn sky
    and one by one they disappeared
    I wished that I was flying with them..

  12. It is so slow to be acknowledged…that these fires are forces of nature that are part of our natural environment. Indians have a history of fires in the West. Huge fires occurred back in the 1800s and before, and continue to this present day. For people elsewhere, in other states, to criticize California for the fire problem is not correct. We don’t criticize them for the Hurricanes in Florida (or say, why do they live there?) We don’t criticize people in Tornado alley. It is recognized that these dangers are part of living in Florida or the Midwest, and that citizens there deserve our help. California has its dangers also – these giant firestorms. It is time to stop the criticism, and for the rest of the states, and the Federal Government, to end the ignorance, and provide the West with the same understanding, and help that they give to Hurricane or Tornado victims.

  13. If a utility can’t deliver electricity without starting a fire, they should not be in business!
    Period! End of story! Yank their business licenense!

  14. In fly-over Country, if you zoom down on a Google map over a high tension line, you can tell that they’ve not only removed all the trees near the path of the power line, also they’ve mowed the grass pretty short.

    I’ve followed the well-mown tracks of high tension lines half-way across states using those zoomed-in pictures.

    That’s taking the problem pretty seriously, I’d say.

  15. I’m sitting in my de-energized (pg&e’s fancy word for not accomplishing their primary mission) home in Lamorinda. In the DARK. There is not so much as a wisp of wind in the air, and hasn’t been all day. Nor has there been any wind on the Bay side of the Oakland hills (I was there half the day). So I guess my grid is somehow connected to all the windy portions of the State. So this is the “new normal” in CA? Fkcu-it! Let the Mexicans have it back. I’ll move somewhere unwoken to shear idiocy

  16. It’s just weather. A big Mobile Polar Anticyclone drives very hard winds. It’s a symptom of the beginning of a cooling period. See Marcel Leroux’s books, Global Warming : Myth or Reality and La Dynamique du temps et du climat (in french, I don’t if it was translated in english).

  17. I wonder how much revenue is lost with the shutdowns and if it would pay for a technological solution to falling wires in wind – a problem they have known about since wires were used.

  18. I checked up on the winds during when this event was forecast, and didn’t notice any extreme winds on land (some high winds around Napa county airport), but most of the very strong winds were offshore in the Pacific. Anyone know just what changed?

  19. Not how winds change very rapidly in short distances. Very valuable. –>

    Note how winds change very rapidly in short distances. Very valuable.


  20. planes –> covering sheets


    [ you ] have heard of trucks being blown off the highways:

    – an unloaded truck is blown from the highway AT ANY wind gusts as long as there’s no load, e.g. staples of empty pallets, is placed near the trucks saddle / the trucks driving axles.

    – the semitrailer covering sheets are a huge “sail surface” that lets the truck immediately loose ground contact.

    And go up, up and away.

  21. That “trucks blown from the highway” is similar to “emptied trucks loosing grip in ice and snow”.

    While the 2nd is a real trouble affording weight over the driving axles and apply snow chains

    The solution for the 1st problem, “blown from the highway” is an easy one: Just Remove That bloody Covering Sheets From The Semitrailer.

  22. A last comment on “climate change” :

    – While the Chile “Paris agreement Conventions” are cancelled because of anxious green “environment protectors” and Kerosene guzzling weary politicians.

    And moved to the inviting European Madrid. Where Venezuela eager invests in real estate.

    – the Texan Cowboys, hardened by however emerging mass shootings and absent border walls.

    Anyway guarantee a safe, guest friendly operation of the planned next “Fourmula 1” spectacle.

    Howdy friends and: let the games beginn!

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