Like thousands of Northern California residents, Heidi Santos lost power at her home over the weekend in the wake of extreme fire danger.
The mother of two was camped out at a resource tent stationed outside a Catholic church in St. Helena on Tuesday morning while her 8- and 10-year-old children played at a nearby Boys and Girls Club. Ironically, the tent where she charged her cellphone was provided by Pacific Gas & Electric, the utility responsible for the massive public safety power shut-off in an effort to prevent wildfires.
The shut-offs have left more than 2 million people in the dark.
Without electricity, Santos couldn’t cook for her young son, who is allergic to a long list of foods — soy, eggs, gluten, almonds and fish.
What was in her refrigerator has long since spoiled, and Santos’ only option now is buying food from restaurants or non-perishable items from the market. To make matters worse, she hasn’t worked in two days because the home where she works as a housekeeper was evacuated.
For Santos and tens of thousands of others, the impacts of this month’s fire weather have no end in sight.
Evacuation orders for nearly 200,000 people were still in place in Sonoma County on Tuesday and more were possible as winds were expected to pick up Tuesday evening, prompting additional power shut-offs and stalling progress in containing the explosive Kincade fire.
The fire grew overnight by nearly 10,000 acres, but firefighters have been taking advantage of lighter winds, finally increasing containment of the massive 75,415-acre blaze to 15%. At least a dozen more homes burned in the past day, bringing the total to 57.
Tuesday morning in Santa Rosa, smoke lingered in the air, but the wind was still and the skies were blue. At a morning briefing, officials weighed the weather forecast for the next 24 hours.
“Today’s a transition day,” said Jonathan Cox, a spokesman with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “If we are looking good as far as fire growth this time tomorrow morning, I feel like that cautious optimism will be solidified. If we’re not, if we have explosive growth tonight, we have our work cut out for us.”
Two firefighters have been injured while battling the blaze — one who was seriously burned and airlifted to a UC Davis hospital. The person was now in stable condition, according to Cal Fire.
Despite the fire’s massive scale and the large number of structures that have been damaged, there have been no deaths reported in the blaze. Fire officials say that’s partly because of a proactive approach and vast evacuation zones that have taken many out of harm’s way.
Because the heavy winds were widely anticipated and the fire started in a less-populated area, crews had much more time than during the 2017 Tubbs fire to evacuate people and get prepared, even with the looming blackouts, authorities said.
Cox told The Times that fire crews, in anticipation of the coming blackouts, tried to get people evacuated this weekend before the power went out.
“Firefighters are very good at operating without power,” he said. “A lot of times, we ask for it to be closed down on fires to minimize the risk. ... I think, for us, it kind of reinforces the message that early evacuation is so important because of the potential that you may not have power later down the line.”
Additionally, strike teams were already in the area around the Kincade fire before it broke out, allowing for a swift response.
On Tuesday, firefighters were awaiting dangerous winds that will peak this evening. Gusts will reach up to 65 mph after 6 p.m. in the mountains and up to 35 mph in the valleys where the fire is burning, according to Spencer Tangen, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. The weather will continue to dry out into Wednesday, posing another challenge for fire crews.
Tangen said a red flag advisory would be in effect until 4 p.m. Wednesday and warned residents — even those without power who are using generators — to be extra cautious because fires can spark more easily in this weather.
“The good news is after we get through this wind event, things do look favorable for the next five to seven days,” National Weather Service meteorologist Ryan Walbrun said at a morning briefing in Santa Rosa. “No rain in the forecast, but also no more offshore wind events.”
Even as Pacific Gas & Electric Co. has implemented shut-offs to prevent additional fires, Northern California continues to see small fires exploding throughout the region. The utility revealed Monday that its equipment malfunctioned near two fires that broke out in Contra Costa County on Sunday afternoon, and the California Public Utilities Commission announced it would investigate how PG&E handles its shut-offs.
The utility said about 596,000 customers from the Northern Sierra to Kern County may be without power again as winds pick up this evening. In Sonoma County, more outages were also expected.
“It is possible that customers impacted by the Oct. 26 [public safety power shutoff] could be part of the Oct. 29 shutoff,” the utility said in a statement Monday night. “It’s also possible that power restoration for some customers impacted by the Oct. 26 shutoff will not be complete before the next safety shutoff must begin.”
PG&E advised customers who have power restored to charge medical equipment, phones and other equipment and restock their emergency kits in case of another outage.
Officials also warned evacuees to anticipate below-freezing temperatures, which will plunge to the high 20s in some areas, according to Tangen. The cold could be difficult for those used to having heat in their homes.
Meanwhile, more evacuations are possible, as unpredictable winds can rapidly fuel the fire, authorities said.
At the Holy Assumption Monastery, the lights were still on thanks to the Calistoga city generator, allowing for normal operations. But the sisters were on high alert.
Sister Marie Callas wore an N-95 smoke mask over her dark brown nun’s habit as she flipped the little sign outside the monastery bookstore from “Closed” to “Open.” Their small shop sells religious items and literature, along with granola and prayer ropes made by the sisters.
They had a Therapure air filter running just behind the counter to try to keep the air clean. The small city known for its hot springs and mud baths is nestled in Napa Valley, east of where firefighters have been battling the Kincade fire.
The 10 nuns living at this turreted complex have been under an evacuation warning since the weekend. If the winds shift and that warning becomes a mandatory evacuation order, the sisters will be ready to go.
“When that advisory went out, we made sure we had all our pet carriers ready so we could pack up our animals and had our vehicles with full gas tanks,” Sister Mother Macrina Roeber said.
If the call comes, the 10 sisters, four cats and four birds will pile into three vehicles and drive about three hours north, to another monastery in Manton, Calif., that has a large guesthouse. They plan to take along as many religious icons from their chapel as they can carry.