Red flag warning, high wind gusts forecast for wine country suffering from wildfires

The weather forecast is not looking good for those living in wine country, and for those firefighters trying to get a handle on the 22 wildfires raging through Northern California, which are barely contained more than three days after they broke out.

The National Weather Service issued a red flag warning for the North and East bays starting at 5 p.m. Wednesday and midnight on Thursday, respectively.

That means winds can gust from 20 mph to 50 mph in the higher elevation areas, likely fanning the flames down mountains and into the cities. As of Wednesday, the combined wildfires had scorched nearly 200,000 acres of land spanning across Solano, Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino, Lake, Nevada and three other counties. Some of the biggest fires, such as the Tubbs and Atlas Peak fires, were zero percent contained. Thousands had evacuated their homes, with no end date in sight.

"It's certainly not good news," NWS meteorologist Scott Rowe said on Wednesday. "We're looking at potential erratic fire behavior. It's a challenging forecast knowing there are active fires. There can be spotting and embers falling, which could start more fires in other locations. With these strong winds, there could be a rapid spread of fire."

That said, Rowe cautioned that the wind gusts would not be as strong in the lower valley areas, such as the cities of Santa Rosa and Napa, which have been hard hit by the fires. The wind gusts in those areas were expected to remain at about 10 to 20 mph.

And Rowe also pointed out that the current wind forecast is not dramatic as the 70 mph winds that gusted through region on Sunday night, when the fires first broke out.

But having the winds at higher elevations is still a serious matter this time of year.

San Jose State University weather professor Neil Lareau told KTVU on Wednesday that these extreme, offshore Diablo winds "are faster coming downhill over the mountains and run into town," Lareau said.

These winds are pretty typical in October. And the Bay Area knows what these winds, mixed with fire, can do.

"It's a very similar weather setup," Lareaud said comparing it to the Oakland Hills fire in 1991, when more than 2,900 structures burned and 25 people were killed.

"Rarely, do good things come from east winds for the Bay Area," he said.

As of Wednesday, the formal death toll was 22 people and officials had estimated that 3,500 structures had burned, though most recognized that those numbers were likely to rise.

Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant told KTVU on Wednesday that the next day or two would be very challenging for crews trying to get a handle on the wildfires blazing across dry timber and grasses, and ripping through people's homes, a camp, a high school, historic hotels and regional icons.

"But we are bracing for some wind tonight and tomorrow," he said, "which may hamper our efforts."

Berlant said Thursday's weather conditions, which also promised more good news of higher humidity, would be a test. Later on Thursday afternoon, the winds were expected to quiet a bit.

"If the winds don't die down soon, Berlant added, "we could be fighting into the later part of the month." 

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