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100,000 under evacuation orders as strong winds fan California wildfire

A fast-moving wildfire forced evacuation orders for 100,000 people in Southern California on Monday as powerful winds across the state prompted power to be cut to hundreds of thousands to prevent utility equipment from sparking new blazes.

About 1 million people in the dark as state cuts power to prevent new blazes

A firefighter battles a wildfire in Irvine, Calif., on Monday. (Jae C. Hong/The Associated Press)

A fast-moving wildfire forced evacuation orders for 100,000 people in Southern California on Monday as powerful winds across the state prompted power to be cut to hundreds of thousands to prevent utility equipment from sparking new blazes.

The smoky fire exploded in size to over 29 square kilometres within a few hours of breaking out shortly after dawn in Orange County, south of Los Angeles. Strong gusts pushed flames along brushy ridges in Silverado Canyon toward houses in the city of Irvine, home to about 280,000 people. There was no containment.

Two firefighters, one 26 and the other 31 years old, were critically injured while battling the blaze, according to the county's Fire Authority, which didn't provide details on how the injuries occurred. They each suffered second- and third-degree burns over large portions of their bodies and were intubated at a hospital, officials said.

Water-dropping helicopters were briefly grounded because the strong winds made it unsafe to fly. Officials didn't immediately know the cause of the fire, one of several that broke out across the region, including another one in Orange County that prompted evacuation orders near the city of Yorba Linda.

About 350,000 power customers — estimated at about one million people — were in the dark in the northern part of the state as officials issued warnings for what could be the strongest winds in California this year.

Smoke rises as a wildfire approaches near Irvine on Monday. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

Firefighting crews that had been at the ready overnight quickly contained small blazes that broke out Sunday in Northern California's Sonoma and Shasta counties. The causes were under investigation.

North of San Francisco, a Mount St. Helena weather station recorded a hurricane-force gust of 143 km/h late Sunday and sustained winds of 122 km/h. Some Sierra Nevada peaks registered gusts well over 161 km/h.

The "shut-offs probably did prevent dangerous fires last night," Daniel Swain, a climate scientist with UCLA and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, said on Twitter. 

Winds had calmed slightly by Monday, but still topped 97 km/h and the strong winds and dry conditions were expected to continue through Tuesday.

A second round of strong gusts is predicted to sweep through the same areas Monday night, the National Weather Service warned. Officials extended a red flag extreme fire danger warning through 5 p.m. Tuesday for the region's eastern and northern mountainous areas.

Kelsey Brewer and her three roommates decided to leave their townhouse before the evacuation order came in. The question was where to go during the pandemic. They decided on the home of Brewer's girlfriend's mother, who has ample space and lives alone.

"We literally talked about it this morning," Brewer said, adding that she feels lucky to have a safe place to go. "We can only imagine how screwed everyone else feels. There's nowhere you can go to feel safe."

'The most extreme weather'

Scientists say climate change has made California much drier, meaning trees and other plants are more flammable.

Traditionally October and November are the worst months for fires, but already this year the state has seen more than 8,600 wildfires that have scorched a record 16,576 square kilometres and destroyed about 9,200 homes, businesses and other structures. There have been 31 deaths.

The electricity shutdowns marked the fifth time this year that Pacific Gas & Electric, the nation's largest utility, has cut power to customers in a bid to reduce the risk that downed or fouled power lines or other equipment could ignite a blaze during bone-dry weather conditions and gusty winds. 

A helicopter drops retardant on the wildfire in Irvine on Monday. (Mindy Schauer/The Orange County Register via AP)

On Sunday, the utility shut off power to 225,000 customers in Northern California and planned to do the same for another 136,000 customers in a total of 36 counties.

"This event is by far the largest we've experienced this year, the most extreme weather," said Aaron Johnson, the utility's vice president of wildfire safety and public engagement. "We're trying to find ways to make the events less difficult."

The conditions could equal those during devastating fires in California's wine country in 2017 and last year's Kincade Fire, the National Weather Service said.

A firefighter braves gusty winds as heavy smoke from a wildfire fills the air in Irvine on Monday. (Jae C. Hong/The Associated Press)

Fire officials said PG&E transmission lines sparked that Sonoma County fire last October, which destroyed hundreds of homes and caused nearly 100,000 people to flee.

Southern California, which saw cooler temperatures and patchy drizzle over the weekend, is also bracing for extreme fire weather. Southern California Edison said it was considering safety outages for 71,000 customers in six counties starting Monday, with San Bernardino County potentially the most affected.

Los Angeles County urged residents to sign up for emergency notifications and prepare to evacuate, preferably arranging to stay with family or friends in less risky areas who aren't suspected to have the coronavirus. Local fire officials boosted staffing as a precaution.

In this image from video provided by KNBC-TV, smoke and flames from the wildfire threatens areas near Irvine on Monday. (KNBC-TV via AP)

Winds of up to 56 km/h in lower elevations and more than 113 km/h in mountainous areas were reported in Southern California, the National Weather Service said. Officials were worried that any spark could turn into flames sweeping through tinder-dry brush and forest.

Many of this year's devastating fires were started by thousands of dry lightning strikes, but some remain under investigation for potential electrical causes.

While the biggest fires in California have been fully or significantly contained, more than 5,000 firefighters remain committed to 20 blazes, including a dozen major incidents, state fire officials said.

A resident of Irvine leaves their home during a mandatory evacuation order Monday. (Jae C. Hong/The Associated Press)

PG&E officials said the planned outages are a safety measure and understood they burden residents, especially with many working from home and their children taking classes online because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Sheriff Kory Honea of Butte County said he's concerned about residents in foothill communities during the blackouts because cellular service can be spotty and it's the only way many can stay informed when the power is out.

"It is quite a strain on them to have to go through these over and over and over again," he said.

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