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Power lines may be to blame for 2 of the raging wildfires in California

Power lines owned by California's biggest utility might have started two wildfires over the weekend in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Fires burning in northern and southern California as state deals with widespread power outages

A firefighter gives orders as he battles the wind-driven Kincade Fire in Windsor, Calif. (Stephen Lam/Reuters)

Power lines owned by California's biggest utility might have started two wildfires over the weekend in the San Francisco Bay Area, Pacific Gas & Electric said Monday, even though widespread blackouts were in place to prevent downed lines from starting fires during dangerously windy weather.

The fires described in PG&E reports to state regulators match blazes that destroyed a tennis club and forced evacuations in Lafayette, about 30 kilometres east of San Francisco.

The fires began in a section of town where PG&E had opted to keep the lights on. The sites were not designated as a high fire risk, the company said.

Powerful winds are driving multiple fires across California and forcing power shut-offs intended to prevent blazes. On Monday evening, a PG&E spokesperson said the utility had restored service to hundreds of thousands of Northern California customers affected by last weekend's planned blackouts as it prepares for another round of shut-offs. 

Mark Quinlan said the lights are back on to about 375,000 of the 970,000 customers whose power was cut on Saturday and Sunday. The restorations are ongoing as crews inspect lines. 

Starting early Tuesday PG&E will begin shutting off power to 605,000 customers — about 1.5 million people — in 29 counties.

Southern California Edison had cut off power to 25,000 customers and warned that it was considering disconnecting about 350,000 more.

Fires erupted in Los Angeles before dawn Monday near the Getty Center — one of the world's largest arts organizations — and roared up slopes into well-to-do neighbourhoods, threatening thousands of homes and forcing tens of thousands of people to clear out.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said the fire had grown to 200 hectares and he had seen five burned homes. Fire chief Ralph Terrazas said he expects the number to climb.

The Getty, with its collection of priceless art, was built with fire protection features, and Los Angeles fire Capt. Erik Scott said it was not threatened.

Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James tweeted he had to evacuate his home because of the fires.

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.

Nearly 200,000 people remain under evacuation order from threat of wildfire. 

WATCH: See footage of the Getty Fire.

Mandatory evacuation order in area around California brush fire 0:25

Fire conditions statewide made California "a tinderbox," said Jonathan Cox, a spokesperson for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Of the state's 58 counties, 43 were under red-flag warnings for high fire danger Sunday.

State of emergency

Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in response to the wildfires, powered by gusts that reached more than 164 km/h.

The Kincade Fire in Sonoma County that started Wednesday grew to 267 square kilometres Monday, destroyed 96 buildings and was threatening at least 80,000 more buildings, state fire authorities said.

Chris Harvey, a public information officer with Cal Fire, told CBC News Network that more than 4,100 people are working on the Kincade Fire, which was only about five per cent contained early Monday — down from 10 per cent on Sunday.

"The big factor with us right now is the wind and the weather," he said, pointing to high wind speeds and low relative humidity.

"This creates this explosive fire behaviour, and what we call the down-wind spotting," he said, in which embers blown by the wind can spark fresh fires.

Mount Saint Mary's University tweeted students at its Chalon campus near the museum were forced to leave and go to another campus, and classes were cancelled for Monday.

Healdsburg, Calif., is still under an evacuation order. (Stephen Lam/Reuters)

The biggest evacuation was in Northern California's Sonoma County, where 180,000 people were told to pack up and leave. Some evacuating early Sunday had done so two years ago, when devastating wildfires swept through Sonoma and Napa and neighbouring counties, killing 44 people.

'I just want to be home'

At an evacuation centre at Napa Valley College, Francisco Alvarado, 15, said he, two younger brothers and his parents decided to vacate their Calistoga home in advance of evacuation orders. Two years ago, the family had to flee, but in the middle of the night.

"I'm pretty mad that we have to keep evacuating," he said. "I just want to be home. I'm trying to leave here tomorrow; I want to sleep in my bed."

Firefighters discuss how to approach the scene as a home burned near grape vines in Healdsburg over the weekend. (Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

He said he wasn't sure who, if anyone, to blame for the repeated fires, but said he didn't fault PG&E for turning off the electricity to try to prevent them.

Rosa Schuth of Sebastopol stayed up late packing bags, but didn't think she would need to evacuate because the fires never reached her town in 2017.

She had been asleep for half an hour when she heard sirens telling residents to go. She got in her car and hopped on a country road that became jammed with evacuees.

"The wind is really something. It just rages and suddenly it stops, and you see a bird drifting by," she said.

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 wildfire two years ago.

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.

In central California, a tree toppled in strong wind Sunday killed a woman and injured a man who was taken to a hospital, officials said.

WATCH | The National's story on the California wildfires:

Strong winds in California are fuelling several wildfires throughout the state. The Kincade Fire is still the largest, with more than 200,000 homes evacuated and ongoing power shut-offs affecting over one million people. 1:39

With files from CBC News

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