California Blaze Forces Evacuations as Wind Spurs Blackouts

October 27, 2019 Updated: October 27, 2019

SAN FRANCISCO—A wildfire in Northern California’s wine country forced nearly 100,000 people to flee their homes over the weekend as historic winds pushed the state’s largest utility to cut electricity for millions of people in an effort to prevent more fires.

The fear that the winds could blow embers and spread fire across a major highway prompted authorities to expand evacuation orders into parts of Santa Rosa, a city of 175,000 that was devastated by a wildfire two years ago. The latest evacuation orders after Pacific Gas & Electric shut off power to 2.3 million people across 38 counties starting Saturday evening.

Flames from a backfire
Flames from a backfire, lit by firefighters to slow the spread of the Kincade Fire, burn a hillside in unincorporated Sonoma County, Calif., near Geyservillle on Oct. 26, 2019. (Noah Berger/AP Photo)

About 90,000 residents were already under a mandatory evacuation order Saturday night that encompassed a huge swath of wine country stretching from the inland community of Healdsburg west through the Russian River Valley and to Bodega Bay on the coast, Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick said.

The current wildfire, dubbed the Kincade Fire, began Wednesday night and is only 10% contained, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said Sunday. It grew by almost 4,000 acres overnight to 30,000 acres (47 square miles) and has destroyed 79 structures.

Flames from the Kincade Fire
Flames from the Kincade Fire consume Soda Rock Winery in Healdsburg, Calif., on Oct 27, 2019. (Noah Berger/AP Photo)

The fire was expected to be especially unwieldly Sunday due to powerful winds. On Sunday morning, the National Weather Service reported wind gusts topped 90 mph in Healdsburg Hills North, a popular tourist attraction in Northern California’s wine country. Winds could lead to “erratic fire behavior” and send embers for miles, Cal Fire warned.

Concern that gusts could knock down power lines and spark devastating wildfires prompted two blackouts in recent weeks.

PG&E said the new wave of blackouts was affecting about 940,000 homes and businesses in 36 counties for 48 hours or longer. The city of San Francisco was not in line for a blackout amid shut-offs for most of the rest of the San Francisco Bay Area, the wine country to the north and the Sierra foothills.

Flames from a backfire
Flames from a backfire, lit by firefighters to slow the spread of the Kincade Fire, burn a hillside in unincorporated Sonoma County, Calif., near Geyservillle on Oct. 26, 2019. (Noah Berger/AP Photo)

The sheriff pleaded with residents in the evacuation zone to get out immediately, citing the 24 lives lost when a wildfire swept through the region two years ago.

“I’m seeing people reporting that they’re going to stay and fight this fire,” Essick said. “You cannot fight this. Please evacuate.”

The wind event expected to peak early Sunday would likely be the strongest in several years, said PG&E meteorologist Scott Strenfel.

Evacuations also hit inmates at the North County Detention Facility in Santa Rosa and about 100 Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital patients.

PG&E ordered shut-offs as firefighters battled flames in Northern and Southern California.

A hillside smolders as firefighters light backfires
A hillside smolders as firefighters light backfires to slow the spread of the Kincade Fire in unincorporated Sonoma County, Calif., near Geyservillle on Oct. 26, 2019. (Noah Berger/AP Photo)

A wildfire Thursday destroyed 18 structures in the Santa Clarita area north of Los Angeles. Nearly all the 50,000 residents ordered to evacuate were allowed back home after Santa Ana winds began to ease.

Marcos Briano found destroyed homes on his street.

“I’m thankful that nothing happened to my house, but I feel bad for my neighbors,” Briano, 71, said Saturday.

Sheriff’s officials said human remains were found within the wide burn area, but it’s unclear if the death is connected to the blaze. The Tick fire was 55% contained.

Several thousand people in neighboring Lake County were warned to be ready to evacuate if an order is given. A 2015 wildfire in the area killed four people and burned nearly 2,000 buildings.

What sparked the current fires is unknown, but PG&E said a 230,000-volt transmission line near Geyserville malfunctioned minutes before that blaze erupted Wednesday night.

The utility acknowledged a tower malfunction prompted a strategy change for determining when to kill high-voltage transmission lines, Andrew Vesey, CEO of Pacific Gas & Electric Co., said Friday.

The possible link between the wine country fire and a PG&E transmission line contained grim parallels to last year when most of the town of Paradise burned, killing 85 people in the deadliest U.S. blaze in a century.

State officials concluded a PG&E transmission line sparked that fire.

Many residents facing blackouts had barely recovered from a previous shut-off.

Jon Robinson, 52, of Rough and Ready, said the earlier shut-off put him in the hospital for several days for the stomach flu. He’d been tending to his sick grandson and got worn down between that and taking care of animals on his ranch.

Robinson was unsure if his family, who moved to California seven years ago, will remain in the state.

“Before this, we planned on staying,” he said. “But I’ll tell you what, it’s just too nerve-racking.”

Shut-offs have brought painful business-related losses.

About 30 miles northeast of Sacramento, 65-year-old Sukhwinder Singh said he worked the Quality Market convenience store cash register in the dark, but nobody wanted warm soda and melted ice cream. He estimates he lost about $1,100 in sales and products. Singh has a generator now, but said he can’t keep it running all night when the store is closed.

“I don’t know how we can pay the bills at the end of the month,” he said.

Also northeast of Sacramento, Scott Paris estimates about $20,000 lost in shutting down his High-Hand Nursery and Cafe when PG&E cut the power earlier this month for about 24 hours during a weekday. A beautiful fall Sunday might bring $50,000 to $60,000 worth of business.

“We’re scrambling to get enough generators,” he said. “If this is the new normal, it’s going to drive up a lot of costs. It drives up stress.”

By Daisy Nguyen and Christopher Weber

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