Firefighters struggled Friday against a wildfire burning across Sonoma County wine country as Northern California braced for a weekend of intense winds, critical fire danger and mass power outages.
The Kincade fire has burned more than 16,000 acres in northern Sonoma County. It has forced thousands to flee their homes.
The entire town of Geyserville and vineyards in the region were forced to evacuate as the blaze, pushed by wind gusts topping 70 mph, burned out of control.
Some Geyserville residents evacuated in the darkness after PG&E shut power off to areas in Sonoma County and the Kincade fire crossed California 128, moving west toward homes in the town of 929 people.
Fire officials said 49 structures were destroyed and the Geysers geothermal facilities run by Calpine Corp. reported some damage.
The cause of the fire was still under investigation, but some suspicion was already turning to transmission lines owned by embattled Pacific Gas & Electric.
PG&E, which went bankrupt after some of California’s most destructive fires were tied to malfunctions of its lines, 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 the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection had taped off the area. PG&E said Cal Fire also pointed out a “broken jumper on the same tower.”
PG&E had been shutting off power to residents to avoid fires sparked by electric lines. The utility company said nearly 28,000 people in Sonoma County, including Geyserville and the surrounding area, lost power when distribution lines were shut off at 3 p.m. Wednesday. The company said transmission lines, which operate at a higher voltage, remained energized at the time the fire started.
Transmission lines generally carry electricity from power plants to substations. Distribution lines deliver power directly to homes and businesses.
PG&E has cut off power to millions to avoid more power line-sparked fires.
But this weekend’s planned power outages could be the largest yet in California.
PG&E, which has 5.4 million electric customers and provides power to 16 million Californians, was projecting Thursday that it could shut off power across nearly all of its territory in Northern California on Sunday and Monday because of ferocious gusts.
“This system will likely be the strongest event of the year from a wind perspective,” the utility . “Federal forecast agencies are in alignment that this will be a high-risk weather event.”
Madonna Tavares, 70, of Geyserville said she could hardly see a foot in front of her because of the thick smoke as she rushed to evacuate from her home. With the power out, she and her husband scrambled in the dark to get dressed, find their two small dogs and jump in their car.
“They shut off the power and we still had a fire,” she said. “I don’t understand it.”
The couple heard news reports about the fire Wednesday evening near the River Rock Casino but said it appeared to have died down by the time they went to sleep around midnight. At 5:30 a.m., they were awakened by a loud bang at the door.
“Get out! Get out!” the Tavareses’ landlord shouted.
Tavares said it wasn’t until she and her husband were safe in the Healdsburg Community Center that she finally broke down in tears.
“I really hope [the house] didn’t burn down,” she said. “We’ve been there four years. We just finished furnishing the place. I painted the whole inside, and we just got it the way we liked. Now the fire will take that away.”
State leaders have blasted PG&E — which blacked out about 750,000 customers in Northern and Central California starting on Oct. 9 — for not being more selective with its power outages. The utility’s outages this week affecting only 179,000 customers. But this weekend could swing wildly in the other direction, illustrating the unpredictability of weather conditions and electrical power decisions, both of which are out of the control of frustrated state politicians.
At a news conference Thursday, Gov. Gavin Newsom again criticized PG&E and other utilities for not making prior investments to systems in the face of climate change and mounting wildfire threats. He said PG&E must be held accountable.
“This is unacceptable,” said Newsom, who faces political risks from the continuing power outages. “Issues of corporate greed meeting issues of climate change have created these conditions.”
Where Southern California Edison may turn off power
PG&E filed for bankruptcy in January, largely because of liabilities it faced from causing past fires.
At a news conference Thursday night, company officials said the potential area for this weekend’s outages could be as broad as the one that put millions in the dark in early October and could start as early as Saturday evening. PG&E President and Chief Executive Bill Johnson added there was “elevated potential” the shut-off could last longer than the outage that started Oct. 8.
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