Ferocious winds fuel blazes throughout Northern California
SANTA ROSA, California (AP) — With ferocious winds driving multiple wildfires through bone-dry vegetation and nearly 200,000 people ordered to leave their homes, California’s governor declared a statewide emergency Sunday. Meanwhile, millions of residents remained without power after the state’s largest utility cut electricity 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 reached more than 102 mph (164 kph). California Fire officials said Sunday that the fire had grown to burn over 85 square miles, and officials reported containment had dropped to 5%. At least 94 structures have been destroyed.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, two grass fires briefly halted traffic on an Interstate 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.
In the south, a wildfire in the Santa Clarita area near Los Angeles destroyed 18 structures. As of Sunday night, the Tick Fire was 70% contained.
The biggest evacuation was in Northern California’s Sonoma County where 180,000 people were told to pack up and leave, many in the middle of the night.
To prevent its power lines from sparking in the high winds and setting off more blazes, Pacific Gas & Electric said Sunday that preventative shut-offs impacted 965,000 customers and another 100,000 lost electricity because of strong gusts, bringing the number of residents impacted by blackouts to nearly 2.7 million people.
PG&E officials say they are expecting strong winds to whip up again Tuesday and that they have notified 500,000 customers — or more than 1 million people — that they are likely to have their power turned off for the third time in a week. Some of those people might not have their power restored from the current outage before the next major shutdown, which would leave them without electricity for five days or longer, said Mark Quinlan, PG&E’s emergency preparedness and response director.
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. “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 her trailer in the town of Windsor, 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.
A historic attraction outside Healdsburg was lost Sunday when embers carried by wind sparked a blaze that engulfed the Soda Rock Winery. Buildings included a general store and post office founded in 1869.
In the central California, a tree toppled in strong wind Sunday killed a woman and injured a man who was taken to a hospital, officials said.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, gusts knocked over a 30-foot (9-meter) tree at a farmers’ market in Martinez, injuring nine people, including a toddler. Six people left with injuries that were not life-threatening were taken to a hospital, police said.
During the 2017 fires, winds up to 90 mph (144 kph) lasted for about 12 hours. This time, the gusts were stronger and expected to last more than 36 hours, ending Monday night, said Matt Mehle, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Monterey office.
Wind-blown embers could 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 Cal Fire.
The parched vegetation from the unseasonably hot weather and low humidity was already igniting spots elsewhere, and firefighters scrambled to keep up.
Two grass fires shut down a 6-mile (10-kilometer) stretch of Interstate 80, including a bridge between the cities of Crockett and Vallejo, and forced the evacuation of 200 people from California State University Maritime Academy. An ember from one fire possibly sparked the other.
Smoke from another grass fire Sunday forced the closure of a stretch of Interstate 80 running through Sacramento’s downtown. Meanwhile, fire officials spotted downed power lines in the area of a small fire that destroyed a building at a tennis club and three other structures in Lafayette, a leafy suburb in the east San Francisco Bay Area.
The city of Vallejo said the blackout shut off its pumping station needed to access its well water, prompting an emergency. The city barred residents from watering yards and asked people to limit bathing and flushing toilets, according to The Vallejo Times Herald.
Many residents said they feel exasperated.
“It has brought a lot of anxiety,” said Cody Rodriguez, 20, who lived for a week at a Santa Rosa shelter during the 2017 fires and checked into a Napa County shelter on Sunday. “I was like, ‘I don’t want to go through this again.’”
This story has been corrected to remove an inaccurate reference to the number of counties where Pacific Gas & Electric decided to cut power, and to show that the newspaper that reported water issues was The Vallejo Times Herald.
Associated Press writers Daisy Nguyen and Janie Har in San Francisco, Christopher Weber in Los Angeles and Julie Watson in San Diego contributed to this report.