California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a statewide emergency on Sunday as wind-whipped wildfires in the north and south of the state gobbled up land, destroyed homes and forced thousands of people to flee.
In Northern California’s wine country outside San Francisco, the Kincade Fire has consumed about 30,000 acres, destroyed 79 structures and led authorities to issue evacuation orders for 180,000 people. Two hospitals in Santa Rosa evacuated and the historic Soda Rock Winery in Sonoma County went up in flames.
Meanwhile, Californians outside the fire zones find themselves in the dark — literally. Pacific Gas & Electric said Sunday it shut off power to 960,000 customers to reduce the chance of more fires.
Californians should not expect immediate relief. Strong winds will keep blowing into Monday and a second batch of Santa Ana winds may hit Southern California in the middle of the week, CNN meteorologist Haley Brink said.
Winds hit the 70-80 mph range on Sunday, the National Weather Service said. Newsom’s proclamation mentioned a “historic wind event” and said “fire weather conditions are unprecedented due to the scale, scope, wind speed and dry fuel conditions.”
“We are deploying every resource available, and are coordinating with numerous agencies as we continue to respond to these fires,” Newsom said in a statement. “It is critical that people in evacuation zones heed the warnings from officials and first responders, and have the local and state resources they need as we fight these fires.”
Kincade Fire spreading fast
The rapid growth of the Kincade Fire alarmed fire officials and residents like Christopher Bingham. He said his family prepared to evacuate, but he was still surprised to see a wall of fire approaching his house in Geyserville a few days ago.
“It was 5:30 a.m. when I looked out and saw flames within 400 yards of my house,” he told CNN affiliate KPIX. “It was time to get out.”
That fire now threatens 31,175 other homes and buildings, said the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire). Authorities have increased evacuation orders to cover 180,000 people in Sonoma County, the sheriff’s office said.
“This is the largest evacuation that any of us at the Sheriff’s Office can remember,” the department tweeted. “Take care of each other.”
The Kaiser Permanente Hospital and Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital evacuated patients in Santa Rosa, the Sonoma County seat devastated by fire two years ago.
Two vegetation fires broke out in the city of Vallejo in the San Francisco Bay area Sunday morning, temporarily shutting down traffic on the Interstate 80 at the Carquinez Bridge, according to the California Highway Patrol. The city’s mayor, Bob Sampayan, said the fire was 80% contained after burning some 140 acres.
The California State University Maritime Academy (Cal Maritime) evacuated the waterfront campus due to the vegetation fires. Cal Maritime is the only degree-granting maritime academy on the West Coast.
In San Francisco proper, winds blew with such force that authorities advised motorists not to drive campers and trailers across the San Francisco Bridge.
In the East Bay city of Martinez, winds blew down a tree onto a farmer’s market Sunday morning, injuring nine people, WPIX reported.
Tick Fire destroys 22 structures
Down in the Los Angeles area, “critical fire weather conditions are in place across Southern California today as winds ramp up across the region this evening,” Brink said.
The Tick Fire, burning near Santa Clarita, had destroyed at least 22 structures and was threatening 10,000 more, the Los Angeles County Fire Department said Sunday.
Ferocious winds, with gusts up to 80 mph, mixed with dry vegetation and critically low humidity of less than 10% have spawned the extreme fire threat, Brink said.
Several areas are under red flag warnings, which are issued when a weather event could lead to “extreme fire behavior that will occur within 24 hours,” Cal Fire said.
That brings the possibility for “very rapid fire spread and extreme fire behavior with any new ignitions Sunday night into Monday,” the National Weather Service in Los Angeles said.
“A second, potentially stronger Santa Ana wind event is forecast to occur Wednesday into Thursday, with winds gusting to 70 mph,” Brink said.
More than 1 million people in the dark
In an effort to avert any more wildfires, Pacific Gas & Electric has shut off power to 960,000 customers, PG&E said Sunday.
But the number of people without power is higher, since electric customers include houses and businesses.
Residents in parts of 38 counties in the Northern and Southern Sierra Foothills, the North Bay and Mendocino, the Bay Area, the Central Coast and the Central Valley are part of the rolling blackouts, the company said.
PG&E announced the current shutoff last week. The company has made preventive shutoffs all over northern and central California in recent weeks, but this one could be the largest.
“This (public safety power shutoff) action is based on forecasts of historic dry, hot and windy weather that poses a significant risk for damage and sparks on the electric system and rapid wildfire spread,” PG&E said.
Californians tired of losing electricity might have to get used to it.
Earlier this year, the company warned it could proactively cut power more often during risky weather conditions as a means of preventing wildfires caused by high winds downing live power equipment.
The preventive power outages may continue for a decade, PG&E’s chief executive said earlier this month.
PG&E has came under widespread criticism and agreed to pay billions for its role in the 2018 Camp Fire, California’s deadliest and most destructive blaze.
A Cal Fire investigation found the company responsible for the fire. PG&E acknowledged it’s “probable” that its equipment started the fire.
More than 700 hosts in Northern California have opened up their homes and rental properties via Airbnb to evacuees leaving their homes due to the Kincade Fire, according to Airbnb.
Hosts in the region are opening their homes for free until November 7 to displaced residents and relief workers deployed to help.