California declares state of emergency over wildfires, winds

Woodbridge firefighter Joe Zurilgen passes a burning home as the Kincade Fire rages in Healdsburg, Calif., on Sunday, Oct 27, 2019. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
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California’s governor declared a statewide emergency Sunday after officials ordered nearly 200,000 people to leave their homes as hurricane-force winds drove multiple wildfires through bone-dry vegetation. Meanwhile, the state’s largest utility cut electricity to millions of residents as a precaution to prevent more areas from igniting.

Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a statement that officials were deploying “every resource available” to respond to the wildfires, including a large blaze in Northern California’s wine country powered by gusts that topped more than 80 mph (149 kph).

Elsewhere, two grass fires burning in the San Francisco Bay Area briefly halted traffic on a bridge. The flames came dangerously close to homes in Vallejo. Another grass fire closed a stretch of interstate that cut through the state capital as smoke obstructed drivers along the busy stretch.

In the south, a wildfire in the Santa Clarita area near Los Angeles destroyed 18 structures.

The biggest evacuation was in Northern California’s Sonoma County where 180,000 people were told to pack up and leave.

Meanwhile, Pacific Gas & Electric shut off power to 2.3 million people across 36 counties starting Saturday evening. Electricity is expected to be restored by Monday.The fear that the winds could blow embers and spread fire across a major highway prompted authorities to expand evacuation orders that covered parts of Santa Rosa, a city of 175,000 that was devastated by a wildfire two years ago.

“This is the largest evacuation that any of us … can remember,” the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office tweeted Sunday morning. “Take care of each other.”

Hundreds of people arrived at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa by Sunday. Some came from senior care facilities. More than 300 people slept inside an auditorium filled with cots and wheeled beds. Scores of others stayed in a separate building with their pets.

Among them was Maribel Cruz, 19, who packed up her dog, four cats and fish as soon as she was told to flee from her trailer in the town of Windsor, which is about 60 miles (97 kilometers) north of San Francisco. She also grabbed a neighbor’s cat.

“I’m just nervous since I grew up in Windsor,” she said. “I’m hoping the wind cooperates.”

Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick urged residents in the evacuation zone that stretched from the wine country to Bodega Bay on the coast to get out immediately, citing the 24 lives lost when fire swept through the region in October 2017.

“Although I’ve heard people express concerns that we are evacuating too many people, I think those concerns are not valid at this point,” Essick said at a news conference Sunday, noting that the winds pushed fire toward the towns of Healdsburg and Windsor overnight.

Dani Foster, of Santa Rosa, went to the fairgrounds after moving only about a mile every hour in a traffic jam on the freeway headed out of town.

“To think of (the fire) coming over Healdsburg and Windsor and into Santa Rosa, that’s a little overwhelming and scary,” she said. “You don’t want it to be that big.”

The Healdsburg area lost one of its historic attractions to the flames Sunday when embers carried by the winds sparked a blaze that engulfed the Soda Rock Winery whose buildings included a general store and post office founded in 1869. The winery was about 10 miles (16 kilometers) outside the town of Healdsburg.

The Kincade Fire began Wednesday night and was only 10% contained Sunday morning, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. It has burned 47 square miles (122 sq. kilometers) and has destroyed 79 structures.

Strong winds hit Sunday as gusts reached 93 mph (149 kph) in the hills north of Healdsburg and topped more than 80 mph (129 kph) in many other areas, according to the National Weather Service.

Nine people, including a toddler, were injured after heavy winds toppled a 30-foot (9-meter) tree at a farmers’ market in the San Francisco Bay Area city of Martinez. Six were taken to a hospital but the injuries were not life-threatening, police said.

The windy conditions, which were expected to continue until Monday, could potentially blow embers and spark fires up to a mile away. Fire officials said they feared that if the Kincade Fire crosses U.S. 101, it could ignite an area that hasn’t burned in 80 years.

“The fuel in that area is extremely dense, they’re extremely old and dry,” said Steve Volmer, a fire behavior analyst with CalFire.

The parched vegetation from the unseasonably hot weather and low humidity was already igniting various spots elsewhere.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, two grass fires shut down a 6-mile (10-kilometer) stretch of Interstate 80, including a bridge between the cities of Crockett and Vallejo. An ember from one fire possibly sparked the other, but fire officials said they won’t know until an investigation is complete.

About 200 people were evacuated from California State University Maritime Academy in Vallejo, which is 55 miles (88.5 kilometers) south of Geyserville where the massive Kincade Fire is burning.

Smoke from another grass fire Sunday forced the closure of a stretch of Interstate 80 running through Sacramento’s downtown.

To the south, a wildfire dubbed the Tick Fire destroyed 18 structures Thursday 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.

As of Sunday, the Tick Fire was 65% contained.

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.

PG&E said this weekend’s shut-off was affecting about 940,000 homes and businesses. 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 and the Sierra foothills.

Many residents facing blackouts had barely recovered from a previous shut-off that cost some businesses tens of thousands of dollars in losses.

Napa County officials also opened several evacuation centers, including one at Napa Valley College, where overnight winds had gusted so strong they toppled four blue portable toilets. Ellie Brown and Cody Rodriguez, both age 20 of Santa Rosa, were trying to find space in their second evacuation center, after finding one in Petaluma too crowded.

“It has brought a lot of anxiety,” said Rodriguez, who lived for a week at a Santa Rosa shelter during the 2017 fires. “I was like ‘I don’t want to go through this again.'”q