Winds topple trees and power lines, stoke fires in California

Powerful offshore winds knocked down trees and power lines around Southern California overnight while fanning brush fires in Big Sur and Sonoma County.

In Los Angeles County, where a high wind warning was in effect until 3 p.m. Saturday, gusts of up to 89 mph were recorded at Mt. Lukens in the San Gabriel Mountains, said Mike Wofford, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard.

Pictures shared on social media showed multiple fallen power lines in foothill areas like Altadena. Toppled trees smashed into houses in Monrovia, Ontario and Upland, crushed cars in Claremont and blocked a portion of Pacific Coast Highway west of Heathercliff Road in Malibu.

Southern California Edison reported 92 outages affecting 24,554 customers in its service area as of 10 a.m. The majority — about 20,298 customers — were in Los Angeles County.

It wasn’t immediately clear how many of those outages were due to the weather, said media relations advisor Gabriela Ornelas.

“The winds can topple power lines or send debris flying in the air so we urge customers to exercise as much caution as possible,” she said. All downed power lines should be assumed to be energized, and people should never approach them, she said.

The winds prompted the South Coast Air Quality Management District to issue a dust advisory that was in effect from noon Saturday through noon Sunday. The worst air quality was expected in the valleys of the Inland Empire, as well as the Coachella Valley, on Saturday, regulators said.

Those in areas affected by high levels of windblown dust were advised to remain indoors with windows and doors closed, and to avoid vigorous physical activity.

Downed trees and power lines were also recorded across the Bay Area, including in Oakland and Berkeley. The Weather Service extended a high-wind warning for the North Bay mountains until 4 p.m. Sunday.

In Sonoma County, a gust of 96 mph was recorded at a weather station in Healdsburg Hills, to the east of Geyser Peak, where a brush fire broke out around 1 a.m. The fire was contained at about 1.4 acres several hours later. There was no word on its cause.

In the Big Sur area, winds were breezy, with occasional gusts of 20 to 30 mph, when a brush fire started in Palo Colorado Canyon on Friday night, said Brooke Bingaman, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Monterey. Offshore winds overnight caused the fire to move from the northeast to the southwest toward the coast, she said.

By Saturday morning, the Colorado fire had grown to 1,500 acres, crossed Highway 1 and forced evacuations. The American Red Cross opened a shelter at Carmel Middle School. Highway 1 was closed from Andrew Molera State Park in the Big Sur area to the Granite Canyon Bridge in Carmel-by-the-Sea, with no estimate for reopening.

It wasn’t clear how the fire started.

Although January fires are not unheard of in California, they are typically associated with a drier winter, whereas this one came after a series of wet storms that brought fuel moistures in the area to normal for January, Bingaman said.

“This fire is a little unusual given that we had the wet atmospheric river in October and then again in December,” she said.

It’s possible the long-term, climate change-supercharged drought that continues to plague the region means that recent rains and cooler winter weather are no longer sufficient to keep fires from growing, she said.

“Much of the West has been in various levels of extreme to exceptional drought for the past few years,” she said. “This is something the fire community will look into by looking at the fuels more closely in that area.”

The fire was scorching a strip along the coast.

Winds were expected to remain lighter in the area throughout the day Saturday, ranging from 5 to 10 mph with gusts of 12 to 15 mph, Bingaman said.

“This is a good reminder that folks should continue to always be alert and prepared for the possibility of wildfires out West, especially when we are looking at offshore winds that can enhance them,” she said.

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