Heavy winds bring fallen trees, mass power outages to Berkeley

Downed trees and fallen traffic signals prompted police to warn people away from a few North Berkeley neighborhoods in the middle of the night.

Branches from a redwood tree fell onto a North Berkeley resident’s pool house Friday night. Credit: John Schnick

Friday night was one of dry, heavy winds, downed trees, mass power outages, toppled traffic signals and power lines and frightening sounds in Berkeley, with the National Weather Service reporting very strong offshore winds producing gusts of over 60 mph in the hills.

The winds blew through the day Friday and intensified overnight.

Tree branches fell on MLK Way near Virginia Street around 5 p.m. Friday. Credit: Lynn Schneider
A tree down Saturday afternoon at a house on Magnolia and Webster streets in Berkeley. Credit: Citizen reporter
A deodar cedar came down into a backyard on Benvenue Avenue. Credit: Sara Shara Greenshtein

At 1:10 a.m. Saturday, the Berkeley Police Department put out a Nixle warning people to stay away from large swaths of North Berkeley between Cedar Street and Solano Avenue and between Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Euclid Avenue: “Traffic lights and power lines are down in the area of Delaware/Acton, 2800 block of Short St and 2000 Parker St.,” it read.

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The Nixle was suspended around 4 a.m. but power remained out for more than 1,000 people across the city as of 9 a.m. Power is expected to be restored in the largest outage area, just north of Dwight Way and west of Martin Luther King Jr. Way, by 1 p.m., according to PG&E.

More than 21,000 PG&E customers in the East Bay were without power as of 10 a.m., the utility company reported. “Our crews are working safely and as quickly as possible to restore service to our customers and communities in our service area that have been affected by the high winds,” spokesperson Karly Hernandez wrote in a statement.

The PG&E power outage map in Berkeley around 8:30 a.m. Anyone can use the map to look up affected areas by street address. Credit: PG&E

While gusts were strongest in the hills, they sang loudly in neighborhoods across the city.

“Having single pane windows during this wind storm means it sounds like an airplane is going by outside every couple minutes,” one Southside Berkeley resident wrote at 1:22 a.m. Saturday. The resident reported having a strange partial power outage, with enough voltage flowing “to keep the digital clocks going but lights either flicker or come on at half brightness.”

A large redwood tree fell to the ground in Willard Park.

John Schnick, who lives between Codornices and Live Oak parks, woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of two branches of his neighbor’s redwood tree falling 100 feet onto his backyard shed where he and his wife keep equipment for their pool.

Branches that blew off John Schnick’s neighbor’s redwood tree and landed on his pool house Friday night. Credit: John Schnick

“It was sometime in the wee hours, I heard this big noise — bang — and I thought, ‘Geez, sounded like a tree falling down,'” Schnick said. “But the power went out at the same time and it’s a dark backyard with giant redwood trees so it’s pretty hard to see. This morning when we got up and looked back there it was, ‘Oh my god, what are we going to do?'”

The National Weather Service issued a wind advisory for the East Bay hills from 7 a.m. Friday until 7 a.m. Saturday.

Farther south along the Big Sur coast, the wind event helped whip up a rare mid-winter wildfire that broke out in Monterey County, prompting evacuations. Called the Colorado Fire, the blaze had burned 1,500 acres and was just 5% contained as of Saturday morning, according to CalFire.

This story was updated after publication due to the developing nature of events.

Update, Jan. 26 After a windstorm swept through Berkeley Friday night and Saturday morning, knocking down trees across the city, multiple Berkeleyside readers wrote in to ask why a large redwood in Willard Park had fallen down. One reader asked whether the timing, a year and a half after a city sidewalk repair project adjacent to the tree, was a “coincidence.”

Parks director Scott Ferris said the death of the approximately 80-year-old redwood can’t be reduced to a single factor.

An approximately 80-year-old redwood tree fell in Willard Park during the Friday night windstorm. Credit: Citizen reporter

Loose soil conditions — the ground was still wet from previous storms — and drought stress can weaken trees, he said, but the most probable culprit is the obvious one: wind.

“Severe wind can uproot and break healthy trees,” he said. “This storm’s wind blew from the north east which was different from the prevailing wind that usually blows from the southwest. Trees can develop adaptive growth according to repeated stresses that are applied.”

Ferris said it wasn’t likely, as some residents had wondered, that a June 2020 repair project, intended to bring the sidewalk in line with accessibility standards, had ushered in the tree’s demise.

“The sidewalk was narrowed to provide more growing space for the tree,” he said. “One small root was pruned. The primary contributor to the tree failure was the severe wind from the north and the confined space that restricted the tree’s roots from growing in that direction.  The tree was growing against a block wall and could not develop roots on the north side.  As the tree grew larger, it became more susceptible to windthrow. Wind speeds were measured at 58 mph.”

City staff received reports of downed trees or branches at 65 locations, mostly in south-central Berkeley. During the Oct. 24 atmospheric river storm there were reports at 120 locations.

The city is warning people to stay away from the Willard Park redwood and other downed trees because “branches and debris can be sharp and hazardous.” Fencing was erected around the redwood Tuesday, and city staff will be removing limbs and cleaning up the area over the next two weeks.

Zac Farber is managing editor of Berkeleyside. Email: zac@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: zacfarber.