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A forecast of powerful winds and low humidity was expected to worsen conditions for the fires that are burning in Northern and Southern California.CreditCredit…Eric Thayer for The New York Times
Forecasters warn of hurricane-strength winds.
The worst kind of weather for wildfires — strong, gusty winds and very low humidity — is returning on Tuesday after a relative respite on 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 has posted “red flag” warnings for most of Northern California and much of Southern California, taking effect at various times on Tuesday.
Forecasters are predicting winds between 50 m.ph. and 70 m.p.h. in Los Angeles County and Ventura County starting late Tuesday and continuing on Wednesday and Thursday, with some gusts up to 80 m.p.h. in the mountainous areas of Los Angeles County, the National Weather Service said. The scale for Category 1 hurricanes begins at 74 m.p.h.
Winds gusts of up to 60 miles an hour could be expected beginning in the morning over a vast stretch of the state from the Sierras to the Pacific and from the southern fringes of the Bay Area north nearly to the Oregon border, except for coastal areas north of Sonoma County.
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 pre-emptive blackouts by utility companies hoping to keep wind-damaged power lines and equipment from touching off more blazes.
[ The New York Times has photographers on the ground, documenting the California wildfires and the battle to contain them. Follow their work here. ]
Firefighters muster for a ‘max effort day.’
Hundreds of firefighters mobilized to fight the Kincade fire gathered in the morning darkness on Tuesday for a briefing at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. Crowded into an event hall in navy blue uniforms and yellow jackets, they listened as commanders took stock: Monday had been a good day.
The wind had died down, allowing for a real attack on the fire, which is now 15 percent contained. But today was going to be difficult, the crews were told.
“We’re going to be wind-tested again,” Ben Nichols, a representative from Cal Fire, told them. The breeze was supposed to get particularly powerful in the afternoon and evening, hurling hot embers toward dry areas and threatening the many houses tucked into the wooded areas of Sonoma County. Protecting those houses would be a major priority.
Many of the firefighters have been on the line for days, and some have worked as many as 36 hours at a stretch with no rest. Top officials warned them against fatigue.
Think things through, they were told. Have an escape plan. Throw out lunches that have gone bad after days in the truck. Don’t let sickness get in the way of work. And get ready for the wind.
Tuesday, said Mike Blankenheim of Cal Fire, was going to be a “max effort day.”
A firefighter worked on a hot spot in Windsor, Calif., on Monday.Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times
Blazes are challenging firefighters across California.
The Kincade fire has grown to more than 74,000 acres but is now 15 percent contained, according to Cal Fire, the state firefighting and fire prevention agency. It has destroyed more than than 120 structures and damaged another 20.
As the Kincade and Getty fires raged through dry vegetation at opposite ends of California on Monday, they raised fears that the state’s vicious wildfire season was straining the resources of fire departments that are already spread out battling 16 fires across the state, pushing fire crews beyond the brink of exhaustion.
“It’s all starting to blend together,” said Joe Augino, a firefighter with the Arcadia Fire Department in Southern California who had just finished battling a wildfire in the canyons north of Los Angeles last week when his company was summoned to travel eight hours to the north to help fight the Kincade fire in Sonoma County.
On a winding road near the front lines of the Kincade fire, where about 156,000 people remained under mandatory evacuation orders, Mr. Augino and his fellow firefighters were extinguishing spot fires with water and hand tools.
Maps show where the fires are burning now.
We’re continuing to update our page of maps showing the extent of the fires, power outages and evacuation zones. Data from Cal Fire shows how the Kincade fire in Northern California has spread and where it is burning most intensely. Satellite images pinpoint the Getty and Tick fires and affected areas nearby.
Maps: Kincade and Getty Fires, Evacuation Zones and Power Outages
Detailed maps show the current fire extents, power outage zones and areas under evacuation orders.
To box in fires, crews chop trees and yank roots.
Fernanda Santos, a former New York Times correspondent based in Phoenix, is the author of “The Fire Line,” the story of 19 firefighters killed in an Arizona wildfire in 2013.
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 fire retardant, which can slow its 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, Ariz., 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 United States 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 now 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,” Mr. Sinclair said.
Utilities say more pre-emptive blackouts are coming.
Power companies across the state warned that power could be cut pre-emptively because of worsening weather conditions.
Pacific Gas & Electric said it would shut off power to an additional 600,000 customers in 29 counties in Northern California on Tuesday and Wednesday because of the danger that wind-damaged lines or equipment could cause more fires. Some 500,000 PG&E customers were still blacked out from previous shut-offs, and the company said it could be several days before power is restored.
In and around Los Angeles, Southern California Edison said on Tuesday morning that as many as 205,000 customers could be affected by safety-related shutoffs, but that so far only a few hundred had been blacked out.
San Diego Gas & Electric warned that shutoffs may become necessary in some inland areas east and northeast of the city, but none had been imposed yet.
A new state web portal includes links to updated information on the power outages, as well as shelters and housing, road conditions and other information related to the fires, compiled by state agencies like Cal Fire and Caltrans.
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,” the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection 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 Advisor at the University of California.
The 2003 San Diego Cedar fire, one of the state’s largest wildland fires in 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.”
The Kincade fire in Sonoma County, which had burned more than 66,000 acres and has displaced nearly 200,000 residents as of Monday night, has proved challenging to remember for journalists and people on social media alike.
Misspellings online include Kincaid, Kincaide, Kinkade and Kinkaid.
Reporting was contributed by Adeel Hassan, Liam Stack, Sarah Mervosh and Vanessa Swales.
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