California Wildfire Forces More Than 90,000 Evacuations as High Wind Spurs Blackouts
By Sean Walton
Northern California braced for historically powerful winds and widespread power outages as the Kincade fire in Sonoma County raged on, forcing the evacuation of more than 90,000 people.
Pacific Gas & Electric Co. on Saturday began to cut power to 940,000 customers in Northern California to lower the risk of high winds — predicted to gust over 70 mph — knocking down live wires and sparking disastrous fires. More than 2 million people could lose power.
“The next 72 hours is going to be challenging,” Gov. Gavin Newsom told reporters Saturday. “I can sugarcoat it, but I’m not.”
Officials ordered the towns of Healdsburg and Windsor evacuated. At 6 p.m., the order was extended to a wide swath of the Sonoma County coast. The new map shows that other communities under a mandatory evacuation include Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport, Guerneville and Bodega Bay, with zones of mandatory evacuation stretching all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
Evacuation warnings were issued to communities north and west of Santa Rosa and areas close to Napa County.
Officials emphasized that it was important for the evacuation to be complete before preventive power outages took effect.
By Saturday night, winds are expected to pick up considerably.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw gusts between 80 and 85 mph,” National Weather Service meteorologist Drew Peterson said. “Hopefully, [firefighters] can make some progress. We’ll most likely see the fire spreading once again.”
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection warned residents to heed the evacuation orders.
“If we look at the past three years, all of the large and damaging fires have occurred at this time of the year during an offshore wind event, particularly during red-flag warnings,” said Jonathan Cox, a spokesman for Cal Fire. “It has us highly concerned that the vulnerable areas of California could see some explosive fires.”
Officials had already expanded evacuation zones to include Gifford Springs, Whispering Pines, Anderson Springs, Adams Springs, Hobergs and Cobb Mountain.
Authorities said a firefighter and two civilians were injured when they were overwhelmed by flames as the firefighter was attempting to evacuate the pair.
“The firefighter was forced to deploy his fire shelter, where he shielded them from fire,” Cal Fire said in a statement. After the flames passed, all three were taken to a hospital. None of them suffered life-threatening injuries, the statement said.
As of Saturday night, 23,500 structures were threatened. The fire was 11% contained.
Residents of Healdsburg and Windsor and surrounding areas were urged to stay with friends or family outside the evacuation zone. Others were encouraged to head down Highway 101 to Petaluma, where shelters were opening at the veterans hall and the fairgrounds. Livestock could be sheltered at the Santa Rosa fairgrounds, officials said.
Dominic Foppoli, mayor of Windsor, urged residents to move quickly.
“Do not take this warning lightly, we need everybody to evacuate…. This is a life-threatening situation and a danger to our entire town,” he said.
Fire officials said the evacuation orders could be the largest in the region’s history.
“We understand the impact of the evacuations we are about to announce are going to be substantial,” Cox said. “We are really prioritizing safety for what is potentially the worst case scenario.”
On Saturday afternoon, the governor traveled to a mobile home park in American Canyon and spoke with residents who said they were warned about the power outage just a few hours before PG&E planned to cut the lights.
Lucille Constantine, who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, told the governor that she tried to pick up extra medication from a nearby pharmacy before the store lost power. But her health insurance under Medicare wouldn’t pay for the additional treatments until her existing supply ran out, she said.
Constantine, 69, said she was told she could pay over $1,000 out of pocket for the medication and seek reimbursement later.
“You could get it if you have the money,” Constantine said. “But I can’t afford that right now. It’s a month’s rent.”
Another resident of Las Casitas mobile home park, Tom Mogg, showed Newsom a generator he purchased for $800 over the summer.
Mogg, 93, said that he can’t afford to have the food in his two refrigerators and freezer spoil during an outage and that his partner, Lillian Crimmins, needs the generator to power a machine that helps her breathe at night.
“We figured if I have trouble, we’ve got a way to get it plugged in with the generator,” said Crimmins, 87.
Mogg blasted PG&E.
“For too many years, instead of fixing the infrastructure, hardening the lines and doing all the things they should have been doing to make this a first-class electrical system, they’ve been pouring it into executive salaries, stockholders,” Mogg said. “They are not pouring it into the areas that are going to affect them delivering energy to us.”
On Friday, the governor said the state had secured $75 million for areas affected by power shut-offs, including in Southern California, where the Tick fire has been burning. Half would be allocated to local governments, with the cities of Los Angeles, San Jose, San Diego and Oakland receiving $500,000 each. The money could be used to purchase equipment to mitigate the effects of shut-offs, such as generators, fuel storage and other backup energy sources.
This week, the state provided additional resources to assist PG&E in inspecting power lines and turning the power back on more quickly, including for aircraft and infrared technology, Newsom said.