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Sonoma County fire conditions mirror recent disasters, with scant relief in forecast

Ill winds blow over Sonoma County’s bone-dry landscape, humidity drops to single digits and the skies remain relentlessly sunny.

The late-October scenario matches the conditions that fostered windblown disasters in 2017 and 2019, marked by death, destruction and a fearful evacuation.

And this year, no significant relief is likely until December, when the season’s first substantial rains may arrive, an early holiday gift from Mother Nature.

“Just another concern in 2020 that we don’t really need,” said Dave Houk, senior meteorologist with Accuweather, a private weather service, calling the agonizing extension of fire season an “added stressor” in a tense year of pandemic and political strife.

The National Weather Service forecasts a string of sunny days through Saturday, bringing October — the first month of the official rain year — to a close with only a trace of rain, less than a hundredth of an inch.

“Enough to wet your windshield,” said Anna Schneider, a meteorologist in the service’s Monterey office.

Around the region, 10 communities had no rain in October and only one — Fort Bragg with 0.14 inches — had more than a few hundredths of an inch as of Monday.

Santa Rosa’s 30-year average rainfall in October is 1.73 inches.

The landscape is at near-record dryness for this time of year throughout the Bay Area, with humidity, or lack thereof, bottoming out near the levels seen in past October firestorms that seared Sonoma County.

In 2017, the Tubbs fire was one of half a dozen major fires that erupted in a single night. It burned 36,807 acres, wiped out more than 5,600 structures and killed 22 people.

The 77,758-acre Kincade fire last year, the largest ever in Sonoma County, prompted a frenetic post-midnight evacuation of 190,000 people.

The current conditions — gusts overnight Sunday topped out at 89 mph on Mount St. Helena, according to PG&E — are a “perfect match” for the two disasters, Schneider said. The red flag warning is in effect for the area through 5 p.m. Tuesday.

Cal Fire’s Sonoma-Lake-Napa Unit is at maximum readiness, with all 32 engines staffed by four firefighters and two air tankers and a helicopter stationed at the county airport.

The state agency is ready for a “high-dispatch response to any possible fire,” Cal Fire spokesman Will Powers said.

That means “getting as many resources (to a fire) as quickly and safely as possible,” he said.

The county’s local fire agencies have established task forces to participate in a unified response, Powers said.

The federal weather service does not issue long-term forecasts, but Accuweather, a Pennsylvania-based private company that employs more than 100 meteorologists, sees just 0.19 inches of rain on Santa Rosa on Nov. 22.

Starting on Dec. 8, Accuweather sees five straight days of rain totaling 2.8 inches.

Prospects are good for December precipitation to “put an end to the fire threat,” Houk said.

Schneider said it will take an inch of rain over a five-day period to end fire season.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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