Powerful weekend wind gusts frustrated efforts to beat back the massive Kincade Fire that's cutting a destructive path through Northern California's wine country. The fire has prompted the evacuations of nearly 200,000 people as it marches toward the county's population hub of Santa Rosa.
More evacuation orders were issued overnight in Sonoma County, though weather will offer a brief reprieve from high winds before another major wind event begins. Authorities warned residents Monday that "if you are under a mandatory evacuation for the #Kincadefire please do not go home. It is still not safe to return."
Firefighters' primary focus Monday is "aggressive" perimeter control, particularly near Mount St. Helena on the eastern edge of the fire and the Shiloh Ridge area to the south, Cal Fire Division Chief Jonathan Cox said Monday. Cox said fire crews would also tackle structural preservation during the brief window of opportunity when wind speeds would fall below the hurricane-force levels seen over the weekend.
Heavy winds helped the fire double in size Sunday, engulfing more than 66,200 acres - roughly the size of Sacramento. As of Monday, Cal Fire officials said the fire was just 5 percent contained and is expected to burn for at least another week and a half.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, D, has declared a statewide emergency as fires rage at both ends of the state - most recently with the Getty Fire that erupted early Monday on the western edge of Los Angeles.
At least two firefighters have suffered injuries since the Kincade blaze began late Wednesday night in Geyserville, about 75 miles northwest of San Francisco. At least 94 structures have been destroyed, including the historic Soda Rock Winery near Highway 128.
Schools in the area announced a wave of closures: All 40 of Sonoma County's public schools were closed Monday into Tuesday, affecting more than 70,400 students. Sonoma State University, thought not considered under immediate threat, canceled all classes through Tuesday, and Santa Rosa Junior College canceled classes and campus activities through Wednesday.
All public meetings in Santa Rosa were also canceled for the week.
Meanwhile, 1.3 million Californians in the Bay Area are without power as state utility giant Pacific Gas & Electric implemented a historically large blackout to mitigate the risk of additional fires as high winds whip around the tinder-dry region.
PG&E also cut gas service to more than 20,000 customers "to protect homes from fire," Sonoma officials said.
Nearly 3,400 personnel are fighting the massive wildfire, and they will contend with a mix of windy and dry conditions.
In the San Francisco Bay region - particularly the North Bay, which includes Sonoma County - a relentless 36-hour period of howling, desiccating winds will come to a temporary end Monday by 11 a.m. local time. "Red flag" warnings are in place until that time for most of the Bay Area, for "critical" fire weather that could allow wildfires to spread rapidly and exhibit extreme behavior that would make them hard to control.
The air mass over this region is at record dry levels for this time of year, and abundant vegetation after a wet winter is also extremely dry, which primes the environment for fires.
The Bay Area won't catch much of a break after Monday, however. The National Weather Service is forecasting another around of "strong, gusty, and dry offshore winds" beginning midday Tuesday and lasting into Wednesday morning, and it's likely that the red flag warnings will be hoisted yet again by Monday afternoon.
This looming event would be the third major "Diablo wind" event in seven days, something Weather Service forecasters in the region said they have no memory of occurring before. Typically these events are more spread out over time. With the next event, winds are expected to be highest in the North and East Bay hills, where gusts up to 65 mph are possible.
A chief concern among forecasters and emergency officials is whether the fire will jump across Highway 101 and, according to the Los Angeles Times, "ignite an area that hasn't burned since the 1940s."
The mass evacuations proved controversial in some of the areas farther from the fire. On Sunday, Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick said he was "100% convinced" he made the right call in ordering the mandatory evacuations Saturday and Sunday, according to the Press-Democrat.
"I can understand why someone in Bodega Bay is saying, 'C'mon. What are you guys doing?' I don't take these decisions lightly," Essick said. "I look at October 2017, and I still get emotional about this because I was there. . . . We lost 24 lives."
The 2017 Tubbs Fire in Sonoma, Napa and Lake counties killed at least 22 people and was one of the most destructive blazes in state history, incinerating more than 5,000 properties - many of them homes in Santa Rosa - and causing more than $1.2 billion in damage.
No additional evacuation orders were issued Monday as Essick acknowledged in a late-morning news conference that many residents were eager to "repopulate," or return home to areas unaffected by the blaze, particularly those in the western portion of the county who remain at a distance from the fire. The sheriff promised further updates later in the day as to when people might be able to return home.
"We understand people are anxious to get back to their property and may choose to ignore the evacuation order," Essick said. He directed his deputies to use "intelligence and compassion" when making any discretionary arrests for attempting to enter an evacuated property, known as "reentry."
He confirmed that deputies arrested two people over the weekend, including one man who was jailed for alleged reentry in an area he did not live in and whom deputies suspect "may have been looking for a crime of opportunity" to burglarize evacuated homes.
A second arrest, of a woman in Sonoma County, was for arson, though Essick called it an isolated incident unrelated to the wildfire. The woman allegedly set the fire at a residence in retaliation for what Essick characterized as a "domestic situation."