A woman was killed Monday when strong Santa Ana winds caused part of a large eucalyptus tree to break off and fall onto her car at an apartment complex in Tustin.
The death is the first reported casualty in Southern California caused by the powerful winds that whipped into the region Monday morning.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Department on Monday afternoon identified the woman as Dennet Bermas, 34, of Tustin.
The tree, which fell in the 14000 block of Red Hill Avenue, also damaged a carport and downed power lines, Orange County Fire Authority Capt. Tony Bommarito said.
“We’ve gotten wind gusts up to 68 miles an hour, so this is going to be a tough couple days with these wind speeds,” Bommarito said. “We’re running a lot of wires-down calls in Tustin and Santa Ana, so our units are constantly running very busy. Our dispatch center is working very hard.”
Offshore winds, warm temperatures and low humidity prompted the National Weather Service to issue a red flag warning signaling possible fire danger across Ventura, Los Angeles and Orange counties through Tuesday night. A dry air mass over the Great Basin pushed down overnight into the western valleys and coastal sections of the region, which brought warm temperatures and fast-moving winds.
This put utility companies and fire agencies on high alert as the powerful Santa Ana winds paired with bone-dry vegetation and low humidity created welcoming conditions for wildfires. Last weekend’s rainstorm only briefly increased the moisture content for small and dead vegetation in the area, which means as the winds pick up, the plants will quickly dry out again, according to weather service forecasters.
“Winds don’t start fires, but if one ignites, the winds certainly are going to promote that fire and make it difficult to fight,” said Bonnie Bartling, a weather specialist with the National Weather Service.
Winds are expected to blow between 15 and 30 mph, with gusts up to 50 mph along the coast Monday. Stronger winds between 55 and 65 mph are expected in the mountains and foothills.
Shortly before 9 a.m. wind blew through the Malibu Hills at 56 mph. Two hours earlier, gusts at the Bob Hope Airport in Burbank registered at 48 mph. Malibu saw some of the most significant wind speeds along the coast, with early morning gusts reaching 62 mph, according to the National Weather Service.
The Santa Anas are expected to peak around noon, but another surge of wind will regenerate Monday night into Tuesday morning, Bartling said.
In Irvine, an enormous pine tree that fell on Barranca Parkway near Jeffrey Road landed on Teresa Tseng’s car as she was driving to a school where she works as a human resources manager.
The 40-year-old Rancho Santa Margarita resident slammed on her brakes. The tree’s branches crashed onto her Mazda CX-9, smashed her windshield and crushed much of her car. She emerged unhurt and was soon standing on the sidewalk watching a city crew use a chainsaw to cut the branches and feed them into a wood chipper.
She said she saw the tree falling from the corner of her eye, but it was too late to avoid it.
“If I hadn’t [hit] the brake, I would have been hit by the branch that got my engine,” she said. “I’m just very thankful that somewhere an angel is there for me.”
Gusty winds blew a large tree onto power lines on North Mountain Avenue in San Antonio Heights in San Bernardino and caused a pine tree to topple onto the roadway on Altadena Drive in Los Angeles County. Southern California Edison crews were grappling with downed power lines across the coverage area of 50,000 square miles, which includes Orange, Los Angeles, Ventura, Riverside, San Bernardino and Santa Barbara counties.
Wind-related issues, including downed lines, along with some scheduled repairs and other issues have caused 139 outages. About 61,000 customers were without power as of 10:50 a.m., according to Mary Ann Milbourn, a Southern California Edison spokeswoman.
“We try to deal with them as quickly as we can,” Milbourn said, adding that if someone sees a downed power line, he or she should call 911. “The most important thing is the safety of the public.”
A Los Angeles Department of Water and Power spokesperson said wind and other service issues had left more than 500 customers without power. It was not clear when power would be restored across the region.
The extreme fire-weather conditions prompted Pacific Gas & Electric to shut off power to thousands of customers in Northern California ahead of the strong winds.
By late Sunday, the utility had shut off power to more than 17,000 customers in Lake, Napa and Sonoma counties. An additional 45,000 customers in the Sierra foothills lost power in the counties of Amador, El Dorado, Placer and Calaveras. Service is expected to be restored for some customers as early as Monday night, according to the utility.
The move is part of a strategy by utilities across California to reduce the risk of wildfires sparked by utility lines that break during extreme winds. Many of California’s most destructive fires — including several that raced through wine country last year — were attributed to power lines.
“It’s really a last resort for us,” said PG&E spokesman Paul Doherty, adding that the utility decided to shut off power after assessing the risk to the area posed by the weather. This is the first time the utility has elected to shut off power because of high winds.
Other utilities including San Diego Gas & Electric have shut off power during extreme winds in local areas, but the PG&E warning covers a vast area of Northern California — mainly in the Sierra foothills and the North Bay.
The wind even affected planes at Los Angeles International Airport. Airplanes generally take off into the wind, which typically means they depart toward the ocean. On Monday, they made their ascent east, Los Angeles World Airports spokesman Charles Pannunzio said.
“The winds over here are coming off the ocean, and that’s why they take off in that direction,” he said. “Every once in a while, such as when we have a rain event or Santa Ana winds, they need to take off in the easterly direction.”
Times staff writers Hailey Branson-Potts, Alejandra Reyes-Velarde and Christopher Goffard contributed to this report.