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Wildfires force tens of thousands across California to flee

Fast-growing fires throughout California forced more than 40,000 people to leave their homes Thursday as dry winds and high heat fed both the flames and fears in a state still jittery from devastating wildfires in the last two years.

State secures grant from FEMA to help fight at least one of the fires

A photographer takes photos amid a shower of embers as wind and flames rip through the area during a wildfire near Geyserville, Calif. (Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

Fast-growing fires throughout California forced more than 40,000 people to leave their homes Thursday as dry winds and high heat fed both the flames and fears in a state still jittery from devastating wildfires in the last two years.

Officials said they did not yet know how many homes had burned and that no immediate injuries were reported.

It's not clear how any of the fires began, but the state's largest utility said Thursday evening that it had a problem with a transmission tower near where a wildfire ignited in Northern California wine country, prompting a large evacuation.

The wildfire was reported minutes later in the same area, although it is not clear whether the malfunction sparked the blaze.

Officials ordered 2,000 people to leave their homes and businesses in wine country early Thursday after a wildfire exploded in size amid dangerous winds that prompted utilities throughout the state to impose electrical blackouts to prevent fires.

Pacific Gas & Electric filed a report with the state utilities commission Thursday saying it became aware of a transmission level outage in the Geysers in Sonoma County around 9:20 p.m. PT Wednesday.

Authorities ordered the entire community of Geyserville, Calif., about 125 kilometres north of San Francisco, to evacuate the area after the fire grew to more than 39 square kilometres Thursday. The town has about 900 residents.

The fire started Wednesday night near the Geysers, the world's largest geothermal field where nearly two dozen power plants draw steam from more than 350 mountain wells to create electricity, said Mike Parkes, incident commander with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire). The cause of the blaze was not yet known, he said, but it was fuelled overnight by 95 km/h winds.

The rugged terrain was hard to access, he said, and by Thursday afternoon, the blaze raged on the outskirts of Geyserville. A series of deadly blazes tore through the same part of California two years ago, killing 44 people.

There were no immediate reports of any injuries, and authorities did not yet know how many buildings were destroyed. Some people were refusing to leave despite the dangers, Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick said.

"Please heed our evacuation order," he said in a televised news conference. "We really need to be able to fight the fire, rather than worrying about rescuing you."

Watch wildfires rage across Sonoma County:

Wildfires erupted in Sonoma County, California on Thursday amid warnings that more than half a million homes and businesses in California could lose power this week. 1:00

Pre-emptive blackouts throughout state

The fire raged amid rolling blackouts that utilities in California have said are designed to keep winds that could top 113 km/h from knocking branches into power lines or toppling them, sparking wildfires. Electrical equipment was blamed for setting several blazes in recent years that killed scores of people and burned thousands of homes.

The state's largest electric utility, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), filed for bankruptcy protection in January as it faced billions of dollars of damages from such wildfires. The investor-owned energy company has set aside billions of dollars for insurance companies and wildfire victims while facing a public backlash over its handling of the incidents.

PG&E announced Wednesday that it would begin rolling power outages, lasting for 48 hours, in parts of Northern California in anticipation of dangerous fire conditions, including unseasonably hot weather and low humidity combined with the strong winds. PG&E spokesperson Paul Doherty said parts of Geyserville lost power as scheduled Wednesday.

A home burns at a vineyard near Geyserville as authorities ordered more than 2,000 people to leave the area. (Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

PG&E's power outages stretched from the Sierra foothills in the northeast to portions of the San Francisco Bay Area, affecting a half million people — or nearly 180,000 customers.

On Thursday, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom had a message for his citizens in the dark: "I own this." He blasted PG&E and other utilities for failing to modernize electrical systems and their handling of wildfire dangers. He said shutting off power shouldn't have to be the alternative in a state that is the most technologically advanced. 

 "It's on me to make sure this doesn't happen again," Newsom added. 

Other utilities also cut power Wednesday and Thursday to some residents in Southern California, where at least two fires had erupted. Those blazes have remained small.

The fire also threatened some of the area's famed wineries. The Francis Ford Coppola Winery posted on Facebook that its property was without power but "not currently in danger." The Robert Young Estate Winery said in an 8 a.m. PT post that "there is fire on our property" affecting brush and pasture areas but not structures or people.

Earlier, Newsom announced that the state had secured a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help fight the fire. He did not say how much money the state would get.

With files from Reuters

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