Bay Area braces for near-hurricane force winds

New red flag warnings that run from Sunday afternoon through Monday could bring the strongest winds of the year.

The widespread fire danger is affecting essentially all of Northern California.

Cal Fire says it’s possible wind gusts could get just below hurricane speed.

And with tinder dry conditions, new or existing fire could spread fast.

At just over 60-acres, The Pope Fire, just east of Saint Helena, now 80% contained, is a threat, not because of its size, but because of its potential.

Firefighters say the looming wind event is capable of quickly spreading any existing or new fire that sparks during this red flag warning.

“Don't let the cooler temperatures fool you. That is really the irrelevant weather factor.  It's the significant winds combined with low humidity, add to the fact that conditions are just so tender dry,” said Cal Fire Assistant Deputy Director, Daniel Berlant.

With projected wind gusts in the 70-mile-per-hour range, winds may approach hurricane speeds.

In communities like Saint Helena, west of The Pope Fire, the threat of flying embers sparking new fires has some residents on high alert.

“We have a scanner, so we keep our scanner on definitely 24/7 during red flag warnings, just because it gives us a peace of mind to hear things ahead of time,” said 

Tiffany Montelli, owner of clothing store Tiffany and Kids.

It’s only been about two weeks since businesses reopened in Saint Helena after being closed for at least a week due to mandatory evacuations during the Glass Fire.

“Our restaurant was closed for like a week.  Wednesday didn’t have electricity.  Food is gone, like pretty much waste,” said Dawa Sherpa with Himalayan Sherpa Kitchen.

Businesses and residents are just trying to get their footing again, and are now under the threat of a new round of fire danger, a new norm that’s taking its toll.

“I think we’re definitely burnt out and we’re still trying to shelter and protect our kids but I think that parents and families and the community is just, we’re stressed.  And we’re tired from this,” said Montelli.

To battle any potential blazes, Cal Fire says it has beefed up staff, has aircraft at the ready, and personnel prepositioned.

“That way when a new fire breaks out our plan of attack is going to be to hit it hard, send fire engines in, bulldozers and fire crews, helicopters and air tankers,” said Berlant. “We're going to throw everything we have at it because we know these wind conditions are absolutely going to pose a major challenge in stopping any fire in the next couple days.”

The threat of fire is so serious, the City of Berkeley is asking residents who live in the hills where narrow roads can hamper a hasty exit, to pre-evacuate.

“This is a very serious concern.  We would not be taking the unprecedented step of encouraging a pre-evacuation and raising alarm about this if we didn’t think that there was an extreme risk to our community,” said Jesse Arreguin, mayor of Berkeley

Berkeley’s mayor called this a twenty-year wind event and made a comparison.

During the 1991 firestorm he says winds were 20 to 35 miles per hour and humidity was 60% to 70%.

Those conditions could be considered moderate compared to what’s expected.