Potentially record-shattering wind gusts could give firefighters in northern California a severe challenge this weekend as they battle numerous wildfires, and strong gusts forecast for southern California could do the same. Cal Fire reported ten wildfires across the state early Friday.
Tens of thousands of people were under evacuation orders Thursday. Utilities shut off power to hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses, hoping to prevent the companies' equipment from sparking wildfires if fierce winds hurl branches into power lines or topple them.
The threat of hot, dry, winds driving flames far and wide was met with fleets of aircraft and hundreds of firefighters on the ground trying to protect homes where backyards were surrounded by trees and brush.
In Northern California's Sonoma County, a fire at the wine country town of Geyserville forced the evacuation of its almost 900 residents and burned at least 49 buildings Thursday. It was only five percent contained at last word.
CBS News weather producer David Parkinson said an offshore wind event could spell trouble for northern California starting late Saturday night and all day Sunday.
The situation there, he said, could be "an absolute mess. … We're talking possible 80 or 90 mph gusts, which is why it is absolutely imperative that crews in Sonoma County get a handle on things on Friday.
" … This has the potential for record strength. We're more than four standard deviations above a normal wind event, which is well above record territory."
"We do think that it will be the strongest offshore wind event of the season by a large margin, and if models are correct, possibly the strongest offshore winds we've seen in years," Pacific Gas & Electric chief meteorologist Scott Strenfel said.
Punishing Santa Ana winds that pushed fires into Los Angeles-area neighborhoods, burning six homes, were expected to last through Friday and could prompt more power shutoffs to hundreds of thousands of customers. The wind-whipped blazes broke out Thursday in the Santa Clarita area and the largest remained uncontained. As many as 50,000 people were told to clear out.
Southern California Edison, which cut power to more than 31,000 customers on Thursday, was considering additional power cuts to more than 386,000 customers, CBS Los Angeles reported.
Winds, accompanied by hot weather and bone-dry humidity, were expected to pick up overnight and possibly increase into Friday, with gusts of 45 to 60 mph in places before easing off.
Parkinson said winds in the region are expected to ramp up on Sunday afternoon and evening and continue all day Monday before backing off on Tuesday.
The Geyservillle-area blaze had burned 25 square miles by late Thursday, whipped by strong winds that prompted PG&E to impose sweeping blackouts in northern and central California.
The outages affected 180,000 customers in 18 counties, most of whom lost power Wednesday afternoon and had it restored by Thursday evening, PG&E official Keith Stephens said.
The blackouts were instituted after utility electrical equipment was blamed for setting several blazes in recent years that killed scores of people and burned thousands of homes.
PG&E said Thursday it didn't deenergize a 230,000-volt transmission line near Geyserville that it said malfunctioned minutes before the fire erupted.
The company filed a report with the state utilities commission saying it found a "broken jumper" wire on a transmission tower around 9:20 p.m. Wednesday.
PG&E CEO Bill Johnson said it was too soon to know if the faulty equipment started the fire. He said the tower had been inspected four times in the past two years and appeared to have been in "excellent condition."
Meanwhile, PG&E warned that an even larger power outage may occur as early as Saturday and could affect portions of 33 counties in the San Francisco Bay Area, wine country and Sierra foothills.