Tens of thousands ordered to evacuate in California as winds threaten to fan wildfire
Authorities cut power to more than 2.3 million people as a preventative measure
About 90,000 residents were ordered to evacuate towns near a massive Northern California wildfire Saturday as the state's largest utility shut off electricity for the third time in as many weeks due to forecasts of severe winds and extreme fire danger.
The new evacuation order encompasses 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. An even broader area is under a warning for residents to get ready to leave at a moment's notice.
Some gusts this weekend might reach 120 km/h or higher as part of a "historic" wind event, the National Weather Service said. The winds could lead to "erratic fire behaviour" and send embers miles ahead of the main blaze, warned the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).
Pacific Gas & Electric said it began turning out the power to 940,000 customers — more than 2.3 million people — around 5 p.m. local time in the Sierra foothills and north of the San Francisco Bay Area. That's about 90,000 more customers affected than previously predicted.
Blackouts will roll through parts of 36 counties and last until at least Monday
At an evening briefing, the sheriff pleaded with residents in the evacuation zone to get out immediately, citing the 24 lives lost when a wildfire swept through the region two years ago.
"I'm seeing people reporting that they're going to stay and fight this fire," Essick said at an evening briefing. "You cannot fight this. Please evacuate."
The wind event will peak early Sunday and is likely to be the strongest in several years, said PG&E meteorologist Scott Strenfel.
"It's likely that many trees will fall, branches will break," raising the risk of damage to utility infrastructure, Strenfesl said at a Saturday evening briefing. Relative humidity will dip into single digits, he said.
Officials also said a firefighter and two civilians were injured when they were overwhelmed by flames as they tried to evacuate from approaching fire in Sonoma County. Cal Fire said the firefighter deployed a fire shelter, which shielded them. After the flames passed, all three were hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries.
Two previous power shutdowns were done amid concern that gusty winds could disrupt or knock down power lines and spark devastating wildfires.
Weather forecasts called for strong winds to lash much of the region over the weekend, with some gusts hitting 137 km/h. It might be a record wind event, the National Weather Service warned.
Human remains found in Southern California wildfire area
A blaze Thursday destroyed at least six homes in the Santa Clarita area near Los Angeles and led to evacuation orders for up to 50,000 residents, although many were allowed back home after Santa Ana winds began to ease.
Authorities said human remains were found within the burned area of the fire, but the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department said it's too soon to know if the death is connected to the Santa Clarita fire. The death is under investigation.
The blaze is 25 per cent contained and authorities have lifted nearly all evacuation orders. Some 50,000 people were forced to flee at the fire's height.
To the north, firefighters raced to make progress against a blaze near Geyserville in Sonoma County. The fire had burned 49 buildings, including 21 homes, and swept through nearly 104 square kilometres of the wine-growing region. It was 10 per cent contained by Saturday morning.
Several thousand people living in small communities in neighbouring Lake County were warned to be ready to evacuate if an order is given. The area was the scene of a 2015 wildfire that killed four people and burned nearly 2,000 homes and other buildings.
High winds this weekend could ground water-dropping aircraft, disperse fire retardant and drive hot embers far ahead of the flames to set new blazes, Cal Fire Division Chief Jonathan Cox said.
"You can't fight a fire that's spotting ahead of itself a quarter of a mile, half a mile, in some cases a mile ahead of itself," he said.
No cause has been determined for any of the current fires, but PG&E said a 230,000-volt transmission line near Geyserville had malfunctioned minutes before that fire erupted Wednesday night.
The utility acknowledged that the discovery of the tower malfunction had prompted a change in its strategy.
"We have revisited and adjusted some of our standards and protocols in determining when we will de-energize high-voltage transmission lines," Andrew Vesey, CEO of PG&E, said at a briefing Friday.
Watch: See aerial views of the California wildfires.