Northern California officials ordered 180,000 residents to evacuate their homes Sunday as winds fueled a wildfire in the wine country, while electricity was shut off 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 that covered parts of Santa Rosa, a city of 175,000 that was devastated by a wildfire 2 years ago.
The latest evacuation orders after Pacific Gas & Electric (NYSE:PCG) shut off power to 2.3-M people across 38 counties starting Saturday evening.
“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.“
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 sheriff pleaded with residents in the evacuation zone to get out immediately.
“I’m seeing people reporting that they’re going to stay and fight this fire,” he said. “You cannot fight this. Please evacuate.“
This 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 and has destroyed 79 structures.
Sunday morning, the National Weather Service reported wind gusts topped 90 mph (145 kph) 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 due to shut-offs for most of the rest of the San Francisco Bay Area, the wine country to the north and the Sierra foothills.
The wind event would likely be the strongest in several years, said a PG&E meteorologist.
To the south, 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.
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 parallels to last year when most of the town of Paradise burned, killing 85 people in the deadliest US blaze in a century.
State officials concluded a PG&E transmission line sparked that fire.