The first Santa Ana winds of the season roared across the state on Monday, killing a woman, downing trees, causing power outages and putting fire crews on edge.
Utility companies and fire agencies alike were on high alert as the powerful winds paired with bone-dry vegetation and humidity in the single digits. The combination created prime conditions for wildfires, even after last weekend’s rain.
Wind speeds Monday hit 82 mph in Fremont Canyon just east of the Orange County Zoo, and gusts topping 60 mph were reported in numerous Southern California locations. The National Weather Service issued red-flag warnings for areas including Los Angeles, Ventura, Orange, San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino counties through Tuesday evening.
“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.
The winds downed power lines and toppled trees across the Southland.
In Tustin, a woman identified by authorities as Dennet Bermas, 34, was killed when a eucalyptus tree fell onto her car outside an apartment complex in the 14000 block of Red Hill Avenue, crushing both the vehicle and a carport.
Crews had to use chain saws to cut through the tree to reach Bermas, Orange County Fire Authority Capt. Tony Bommarito said.
Tustin Police Lt. Robert Wright said Bermas was exiting the apartment complex, where she was a resident. Neighbors told NBC Los Angeles that Bermas was a nurse at an assisted-living facility.
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, smashing her windshield and crushing much of her car. She emerged unhurt and was soon watching from the sidewalk as a city crew use a chain saw to cut the branches and feed them into a wood chipper.
She said she saw the tree falling out of 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.”
The Santa Anas peaked on Monday, but gusts are expected to last through at least Tuesday afternoon, forecasters said.
Malibu saw some of the most significant wind speeds along the coast. Gusts hit 67 mph about 2 p.m. in the Malibu Hills, said Kathy Hoxsie, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard.
At Cal State San Bernardino, gusts reached 63 mph, and winds of 48 mph were recorded at Bob Hope Airport in Burbank.
Monday “really was the prime time for the winds, but the relative humidities are going to stay really low, so it’s the combination of those two things that keep us in red-flag conditions,” Hoxsie said.
Humidity in the teens is considered low, she said. But on Monday afternoon, there was 3% humidity in the Malibu Hills, 4% in the Newhall Pass and 6% in Claremont.
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.
About 61,000 customers were without power by late Monday morning, said Mary Ann Milbourn, a SoCal Edison spokeswoman.
“We try to deal with them as quickly as we can,” Milbourn said, adding that anybody who sees a downed power line should call 911. “The most important thing is the safety of the public.”
La Cañada High School and St. Francis High School both announced late Monday that their campuses would be closed Tuesday due to a power outage in the community. La Cañada’s elementary schools did not appear to be affected.
The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power said Monday afternoon that about 8,900 customers had lost power. The most affected neighborhoods were Valley Village, Mar Vista and Canoga Park.
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.
The move is part of a strategy by utilities across California to reduce the risk of wildfires sparked by lines that break during extreme winds. Many of the state’s most destructive blazes — 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 portion of Northern California — mainly in the Sierra foothills and the North Bay. Late Monday, the utility said that it was beginning to restore power and anticipated that most customers would have it back before Tuesday morning after lines had been checked.
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 to the 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.”
The winds also whipped through Dodger Stadium, where the Dodgers played the Milwaukee Brewers in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series.
Before the game, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said he woke up Monday and noticed the warm air and wind, unsure of how it was going to affect balls hit during the game.
“I expect the ball to be flying a little bit today,” Roberts told reporters.
Unfortunately for the Dodgers, the winds were no help. They lost, 4-0.
Times staff writers Alejandra Reyes-Velarde and Christopher Goffard and the Associated Press contributed to this report.