Anita Chabria, Taryn Luna, Maura Dolan, Teresa Watanabe
Los Angeles Times
Nearly a million homes and businesses were thrown into darkness Saturday as fear that monster winds could down power lines and spark wildfires prompted Pacific Gas & Electric Co. to shut off power across large swaths of the state.
The threat of wind-propelled conflagrations also prompted the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to order more than 90,000 Sonoma County residents to leave their homes as the Kincade fire grew to 25,000 acres. Officials said the evacuation orders — which began with Healdsburg and Windsor on Saturday morning but stretched to the Pacific Ocean by the evening — could be the largest in the region’s history.
Gov. Gavin Newsom warned that tough times were ahead for the state.
“The next 72 hours is going to be challenging,” Newsom told reporters. “I can sugarcoat it, but I’m not.”
Across Northern California, communities were bracing for winds to reach historically powerful levels. The National Weather Service expects sustained winds from the northeast of 40 mph to push the Kincade blaze in the direction of Highway 101 and gusts peaking between 60 and 80 mph from midnight until sunrise.
Residents scrambled to leave town and stock up on medicine and food before the power shut-offs. At a mobile home park in American Canyon, Lucille Constantine, who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, told Newsom that she tried to pick up extra medication from a nearby pharmacy before it 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 more than $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 showed Newsom a generator he purchased for $800 over the summer. Tom Mogg, 93, said that he can’t afford for the food in his two refrigerators and freezer to spoil during an outage and that his partner, Lillian Crimmins, 87, needs the generator to power a machine that helps her breathe at night.
Evacuation warnings were issued late Saturday to communities in northern Santa Rosa, including the Coffey Park neighborhood that burned in 2017’s Tubbs fire; Sebastopol and surrounding areas; and mountains along the border with Napa County.
Just north of Santa Rosa, Sharon Bowne was visibly anxious as she loaded her SUV to evacuate her newly built duplex near the Fountaingrove neighborhood where her home burned in the Tubbs fire. At her feet were boxes of neatly folded linens and an antique waffle maker that she didn’t want to part with. A bench with a needlepoint top wasn’t going to fit. Every inch of space was packed.
The evacuation order had just come down about an hour earlier, after darkness had fallen, and with the threat that the power would be cut any moment.
“I’ve already had my meltdown today,” she said. “They’re shutting it off and we only have two little flashlights.”
The last time fire came through, she had no warning. Bowne woke up in the middle of the night to use the restroom and smelled smoke; she and her husband barely got out in time.
In Healdsburg, a city in the heart of wine country, most of the 11,000 residents heeded the mandatory evacuation that began at 10 a.m., piling into cars that turned the 101 south toward San Francisco into a bottleneck of traffic. By 3:30 p.m., the town was nearly empty in an evacuation process that was executed more smoothly than during the Tubbs fire, which roared through Sonoma, Lake and Napa counties in what was then the most destructive wildfire in California history.
Rhea Borja, a Healdsburg spokeswoman, said the city has been working for some time to prepare people for the possibility of a massive departure, including a practice drill last weekend.
Healdsburg Police Chief Kevin Burke said his officers had canvassed door to door throughout the day to confirm that most people were gone.
But not everyone was willing to leave. In a side street not far from the town center, Tom, who declined to give his last name, was in his garage with his son-in-law Kevin drilling holes in particleboard. They planned on sealing the 35 vents on his home, which is surrounded by a thick shading of trees, to prevent sparks from the Kincade fire from flying into their attic.
“My theory, and I think it’s pretty well proven: I believe all the homes lost in the Tubbs fire were from attic vents,” said Tom, a civil engineer.
After sealing the vents, he said, they would leave town — “if the police don’t kick me out first,” he said.
A few doors down, Brian White was charging some lanterns and listening to a radio scanner. He said he did not intend to leave his house, which had a double fire buffer of a cemetery behind it and a golf course nearby. Only a “hellacious wind storm” would push the fire into town, he said, adding that he was less worried about that likelihood than leaving his home unattended in a vacant city.
But he sent his two children and his wife across town to stay with his parents in case they needed to quickly evacuate. And his Suzuki 650 motorcycle was ready in the garage if all hell broke loose.
Healdsburg Councilman Shaun McCaffery also chose to stay. When the evacuation orders came down, he was in the hardware store buying sprinklers for his roof, and a 400-pound generator sat in the back of his truck. His family was safe in a hotel in Sebastopol, he said, but he was staying behind to protect the family’s home and three cats, Butter, Percy and Inka.
“I just think being an elected official, staying is the right thing to do,” McCaffery said.
At the entrance to the 101, Larry “Doc” Johnson sat waiting for roadside assistance with his two dogs, Clyde and Gunner. A lifelong resident of Windsor, outside Healdsburg, he faced a mandatory evacuation, he said, but his camper blew two tires as he was heading north to the river. The threat of fire didn’t spook him.
“I’ve seen fire on them hills lots,” he said. But if he could get his rig running that night, he said, he’d head out to the coast to go crabbing in Bodega Bay later this week.
In the East Bay, residents had been told their power would be out by 10 p.m. Saturday, then 8 p.m, 7 p.m. and finally 5 p.m. The times changed with each update in wind forecasts. Wind is much harder to predict than rain.
Finding ice Saturday morning proved impossible for many residents, but there were bright spots.
Moraga Hardware & Lumber told a local television station Friday that it was receiving a a new shipment of lanterns and batteries the next morning. The news spread on online neighborhood forums.
Before 8 a.m., lines had formed at the store. Customers gladly paid $53.51 for a small battery-operated lantern and an eight-pack of D batteries.
A Moraga resident identified as AM Wittek on a neighborhood forum had a generator. Wittek offered to loan it to anyone who needed it for medical reasons.
Others shared advice for keeping freezers and refrigerators cold: Adjust the temperatures to levels below what manufacturers recommend, and freeze plastic water bottles and other containers with water to keep food cool when power was lost.
The planned shutdown, however, sparked plenty of grumbling about PG&E. Mogg, the American Canyon mobile home owner, blamed the utility for paying excessive salaries rather than focusing on public safety.
“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.
In a news conference Saturday, PG&E President Andy Vesey said he knew the power shutdowns were inconvenient and in some cases life-threatening. But he said the confluence of high and dry winds, which could topple trees across power lines, and years of drought, which have left 100 million trees dead and ready fuel, presented a potential for disaster, he said.
“Any spark can be an ignition source of a catastrophic wildfire,” he said. “Safety is always our primary consideration.”
The power shutdown will affect 940,000 customers in 38 counties in the northern and southern Sierra foothills, the North Bay and Mendocino County, the Bay Area, the Central Coast and the Central Valley. The action is based on forecasts of “historic dry, hot and windy weather that poses a significant risk for damage and sparks on the electric system and rapid wildfire spread,” PG&E said in a statement.
Forecasters said the peak period for high winds was expected to occur Saturday evening and continue through midday Monday.
The Kincade fire began Wednesday night and has charred more than 25,000 acres in an area of the state with vivid memories of wildfires that burned entire neighborhoods to the ground two years ago. As of Saturday night, 23,500 structures were threatened and the fire was 11% contained.
The cause of the fire is still under investigation, but some suspicion is already turning to transmission lines owned by PG&E. The utility said Thursday that one of its transmission lines experienced problems Wednesday night around the area where the fire broke out.
In a mandatory report sent to the California Public Utilities Commission, the company said one of its workers noticed that Cal Fire had taped off the area. PG&E said Cal Fire also pointed out a “broken jumper on the same tower.”
Authorities said a firefighter and two civilians were injured when they were overwhelmed by flames as the firefighter was trying 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.
The evacuation zones included Gifford Springs, Whispering Pines, Anderson Springs, Adams Springs, Hobergs and Cobb Mountain. By evening, the zones were expanded to Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport and Guerneville all the way to Bodega Bay and the Pacific Ocean. Guerneville faced another disaster earlier this year when the overflowing Russian River flooded an estimated 2,000 homes.
Sonoma County officials opened new evacuation shelters at veterans halls in Santa Rosa and Petaluma and at the Petaluma Fairgrounds.
Near the Geyser Peak Winery, Anna Levinger had a “military style” evacuation plan ready on a spreadsheet. She and her crew of farmhands were busy cutting low branches away from anything that could burn and prepping her riding school in case the fire came close. She has 35 horses and a menagerie of other animals, including llamas, pigs and goats.
“Everything I own loads, even my bull,” she said.
But she didn’t expect to have to evacuate.
“There are embers and spot fires, but that is not the same as a firestorm, which is what they are selling,” she said. “I think I will be fine.”
Times staff writers Jack Dolan and Rong-Gong Lin II contributed to this report.
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