Thousands without power in Western Australia after once in a decade storm

MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Wild weather downed trees and left tens of thousands of people without power in Western Australia, as emergency services began cleaning up in Perth on Monday after some of the worst weather in a decade.

Wind speeds of up to 132 km/hour (82 mph) were registered at Cape Leeuwin, one of the state’s most south-westerly points early on Monday, the strongest May gusts in 15 years, according to the Australia Broadcasting Corp.

“Some wild weather has affected large parts of WA, causing widespread damage and large scale power outages. Please listen to the advice of emergency services and stay safe everyone,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on social media.

Around 50,000 customers were without power on Monday due to storm-related outages, utility Western Power said, as the remnants of Cyclone Mangga hit a cold front and brought squalling rain and emergency level storm warnings to the south of the state.

“New damage from the windborne debris has meant the overall number of impacted homes and businesses remains high,” it said on Twitter.

More than 390 calls for assistance were made to the state’s emergency services since Sunday, mostly from the Perth metropolitan area, the Department of Fire and Emergency Services Chief Superintendent Danny Mosconi told ABC Radio.

Pilbara Ports Authority said port operations in the Pilbara had not been affected, but elevated swell led to some minor shipping schedule changes at the Port of Dampier, which is used by Rio Tinto.

The biggest oil and gas operators in WA, Chevron Corp, Woodside Petroleum and Santos, said there was no impact on their operations in the minerals-rich state.

BHP Group said their was no major impact to its operations. Rio Tinto Ltd declined to comment.

(Reporting by Melanie Burton in Melbourne; Additional reporting by Sonali Paul in Melbourne and Renju Jose in Sydney; Editing by Richard Pullin)

Flights axed and floods feared as Storm Ciara clobbers Europe

By Kylie MacLellan

LONDON (Reuters) – Storm Ciara lashed Britain and northern continental Europe with heavy rain and wind speeds that reached more than 90 miles an hour (145 kph) in places on Sunday, forcing the cancellation of hundreds of flights, train services and sports matches.

More than 200 flood warnings were issued across Britain, which recorded a maximum wind speed of 93 miles an hour at Aberdaron in Wales. One severe flood warning was put in place in Yorkshire, northern England, where water was predicted to overflow flood defenses and potentially threaten lives.

The storm caused major disruption to transport across the region; in the Netherlands, around 240 flights to and from Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, one of Europe’s busiest, were canceled as Ciara roared in off the Atlantic with gusts of up to 74 mph (120 kph).

In Germany, where Ciara was named Sabine, about 180 flights to and from Frankfurt airport – about 15% of all planned flights – were axed. Lufthansa <LHAG.DE>, Germany’s largest carrier, said it would cancel short and long-haul flights from Munich airport on Monday until 1200 GMT and 1300 GMT, respectively.

Lufthansa’s budget unit Eurowings said it had suspended flight operations at Hamburg, Berlin, Hanover, Dortmund, Duesseldorf, Cologne and Stuttgart. Meanwhile, some British domestic and international flights were also canceled, from airports including Heathrow and Gatwick.

Train services also fell victim to Ciara’s wrath.

German railway operator Deutsche Bahn warned of severe disruptions and said it would stop long-distance train travel across Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, in the evening.

Britain’s Network Rail said the weather had caused problems across its network, with fallen power lines, trees and even trampolines blocking tracks, and warned people not to travel unless they had to.

SPORT DISRUPTED

All shipping movements in and out of Britain’s Port of Dover on the south coast were suspended and the Humber Bridge in northern England was closed to all traffic for only the second time since it opened in 1981.

London’s eight royal parks, home to more than 170,000 trees, were closed and even the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, a tourist draw, was also canceled.

Sporting events were also hit; Manchester City said its English Premier League soccer match against West Ham was postponed due to “extreme and escalating weather conditions”, while Scotland’s Women’s Six Nations rugby match against England was among the other matches canceled.

All professional Dutch soccer matches were canceled, along with most outdoor sporting events.

(Reporting by Kylie MacLellan in London, Christoph Steitz in Frankfurt and Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam; Editing by Pravin Char)

Storm Gloria leaves eight dead, ruins rice paddies in Spain

MADRID (Reuters) – At least eight people have been killed as Storm Gloria has rampaged across eastern Spain, unleashing winds of up to 144 kmh (90 mph) and waves up to 13.5 meters (44 feet) high, officials said on Wednesday.

Three people remained missing four days after Gloria began pummeling the region with torrential rain and heavy snowfall alike. Rescue officials said the missing included a 25-year-old Briton on the island of Ibiza and a man who fell into the Mediterranean as he tried to moor his boat in Palamos port.

The storm began receding on Wednesday after leaving more than 200,000 people without power at times, destroying rice paddies in the Ebro river delta and triggering weather alerts for three dozen provinces.

Gloria ranks as the worst sea storm since 2003 “and likely of this century”, Dani Palacios, head of beach services for Barcelona in the northeast, told local broadcaster BETEVE.

Spanish police said they had found the body of a person in an Alicante river while a source at rescue services said another person died after a building collapsed in nearby Alcoy, likely due to heavy rainfall.

A man working in a greenhouse was killed as hail pounded the structure, a mayor in the province of Almeria told Efe news agency, while authorities in Valencia province blamed the death of a homeless person on frigid cold brought by the storm.

Sea water poured into the Ebro delta, one of Spain’s most important wetlands, inundating thousands of hectares of rice plants. “We can’t remember anything similar ever happening,” local mayor Lluis Soler told Cadena Ser radio.

“It’s dramatic to see how the river has overflowed and the sea has traveled kilometers inland.”

Waves in the western Mediterranean hit a record-breaking height of 13.5 meters (44.5 feet), port authorities said, slamming into seafront shops flooding municipalities.

Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez tweeted his “support and solidarity for the families of the victims of Storm Gloria and those suffering its the fatal consequences.”

(Reporting by Elena Rodriguez; Writing by Ashifa Kassam; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Australians shelter from bushfires as political heat climbs

By Colin Packham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Firefighters battled hundreds of bushfires across Australia on Thursday as scores of blazes sprang up in new locations, triggering warnings that it was too late for some residents to evacuate.

As Thick smoke blanketed the most populous city of Sydney for a third day, residents were urged to keep children indoors, stepping up pressure on Prime Minister Scott Morrison to tackle climate change.

By early afternoon, dozens of fires were burning across the southeastern state of Victoria and temperatures of 40.9 Celsius (105.6 F) in Melbourne, its capital, matched the hottest day on record in 1894, Australia’s weather bureau said.

Authorities warned residents of towns about 50 km (31 miles) north of Ballarat, the state’s third largest city, that it was too late for them to evacuate safely.

“You are in danger, act now to protect yourself,” fire authorities said in an alert. “It is too late to leave. The safest option is to take shelter indoors immediately.”

Blazes across several states have endangered thousands of people, killing at least four people this month, burning about 2.5 million acres (1 million hectares) of farmland and bush and destroying more than 400 homes.

The early arrival and severity of the fires in the southern hemisphere spring follows three years of drought that experts have linked to climate change and which have left bushland tinder-dry.

With 10 days remaining to the official start of summer, extreme temperatures and high winds have sparked wildfires in new areas, even as firefighters tracked the crisis across the mainland, the Northern Territory and the island of Tasmania.

In Victoria, power to more than 100,000 homes was knocked out amid lightning strikes and strong, gusty winds of more than 110 kph (68 mph) that knocked tree branches into power lines, ahead of a cool change expected to bring relief in the evening.

The extensive damage was likely to leave some customers without power through the night as utilities worked to restore networks and fix downed powerlines, a spokeswoman for power provider Ausnet said.

State authorities issued its first Code Red alert in a decade, signifying the worst possible bushfire conditions, warning that should a fire start it would be fast moving, unpredictable and probably uncontrollable.

In the state of New South Wales, strong winds blew smoke from 60 fires still burning over much of Sydney, shrouding the harbor city and its famous landmarks in thick smog.

The state imposed tough new water curbs in Sydney from Dec. 10, when a key dam is expected to be down to 45% capacity. Residents face fines if they use hoses to water their gardens and wash their cars.

CLIMATE POLITICS

The unrelenting conditions have sharpened attention on the climate change policies of Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who rejected any link.

“Climate change is a global phenomenon, and we’re doing our bit as part of the response to climate change,” Morrison told ABC radio.

“To suggest that, with just 1.3% of global emissions, that Australia doing something differently – more or less – would have changed the fire outcome this season, I don’t think that stands up to any credible scientific evidence at all.”

Morrison’s conservative government has committed to the Paris Agreement for a cut in emissions from 26% to 28% by 2030, versus 2005 levels. Critics say current projections suggest it will miss that target and have urged remedial steps.

(Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Jane Wardell and Clarence Fernandez)

California winds slacken, helping firefighters control blazes

California winds slacken, helping firefighters control blazes
(Reuters) – Winds that have fanned California’s wildfires have calmed, helping firefighters contain blazes that have destroyed homes and forced mass power outages since late last month.

“We’ve really seen the end of it,” said Patrick Burke, a meteorologist with the National Weather Serices’s (NWS) Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland.

“The winds have calmed down and this is nothing but good news,” he said. “It remains extremely dry to so more (fire) spreading is possible, but there are no elevated fire concerns.”

The state’s largest fire, dubbed the Kincade fire in Sonoma County’s tourist-popular wine country, was 78% contained late on Sunday at the fire department’s last update.

It burned nearly 80,000 acres (32,375 hectares) and destroying more than 370 structures since it started on Oct. 23, officials said.

Firefighters working overnight into Monday to contain a Southern California wildfire made significant headway, containing 70% of the blaze with the aid of cooler weather and lighter winds after it burned thousands of acres of dry brush and farmland.

The Maria Fire, which broke out on Thursday near the community of Santa Paula about 70 miles (110 km) northwest of downtown Los Angeles, had destroyed two structures and burned more than 9,400 acres (3,800 hectares), the Ventura County Fire Department said on Sunday.

Firefighters paid close attention to the county’s avocado and citrus orchards threatened by the flames, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Evacuation orders in Ventura County were lifted on Saturday, when the fire department said the blaze was 20% contained. More than 10,000 residents had previously been told to evacuate at the peak of the fire’s rapid spread.

Southern California Edison has told state authorities that 13 minutes before the fire started, it began to re-energize a circuit near where flames first erupted, said a spokesman for the utility, Ron Gales.

Southern California Edison had shut off power in the area because of concerns that an electrical mishap could spark a wildfire. The utility and fire officials have said the cause of the blaze is still under investigation.

Some smaller fires have broken out, including the so-called Ranch fire in Tehama County, which has burned about 470 acres of brush and chaparral, with some evacuations advised late Sunday but none ordered, officials said. No structures were reported damaged.

(Reporting by Rich McKay, additional reporting by by Gabriella Borter; Editing by William Maclean)

As winds surge, new wildfire ignites near Reagan Library outside Los Angeles

As winds surge, new wildfire ignites near Reagan Library outside Los Angeles
By Steve Gorman and Jonathan Allen

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – A fresh wildfire ignited near the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library outside Los Angeles on Wednesday as extraordinarily dry, prolonged Santa Ana winds whipped through the region, forcing meteorologists to grasp for new language to warn of the danger.

The fire broke out in Ventura County’s Simi Valley, just a few miles away from a growing blaze that has been consuming the shrub-covered hills near the Getty Center museum in Los Angeles for two days, displacing thousands of residents from some of the area’s priciest neighborhoods.

For firefighters, the weather forecast could not be worse: The National Weather Service issued an unprecedented “extreme red flag” warning for wildfires in Los Angeles and Ventura counties ahead of two days of intense dry wind gusts.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen us use this warning,” said forecaster Marc Chenard. “It’s pretty bad.”

Statewide, the weather service issued warnings of dangerous fire weather conditions covering more than 34,000 square miles (88,000 square km), encompassing some 21 million people. Scientists have linked an increase in frequency and intensity of wildfires to climate change.

The Easy Fire in Simi Valley ignited just before dawn and quickly grew to 972 acres (393 hectares) as it was fanned westward by Santa Ana winds, according to the Ventura County Fire Department. A long wall of orange flames and thick, gray smoke could be seen just down the slope from the hilltop Reagan Library, which houses many of the former president’s records and the plane he used for official travel. At least two helicopters dropped water on the flames.

County fire officials ordered residents to evacuate the area around the library, which includes a number of sprawling ranch properties. Residents in face masks coaxed nervy horses into trailers to drive them to safety.

A number of structures in the area were ablaze, according to video broadcast by local television station ABC 7 News.

A few employees remained at the library, which has fire doors and sprinklers, spokeswoman Melissa Giller told ABC7 News. The library has trucked in goats in years past to eat away flammable scrub around the building’s perimeter.

The Santa Ana winds are a regional weather phenomenon that sends gusts westward off the desert out to the Southern California coast. They are forecast to reach sustained speeds of 50 to 70 miles per hour (80 to 110 km per hour) on Wednesday and Thursday, raising the risk of sparks and embers being whipped into fresh wildfires in unburned areas.

Los Angeles Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas said extremely high winds could also force the grounding of water-dropping helicopters, a vital component of the firefighting arsenal.

City arson investigators say the Getty fire was likely caused by a broken tree branch being blown into power lines during high winds on Monday morning. It continued to grow in size, consuming 745 acres (300 hectares) by Wednesday morning, with about a quarter contained by firefighters. At least 12 homes have been destroyed.

Electricity remained cut off to roughly half a million homes and businesses in Northern and Central California on Tuesday as a precaution by the state’s largest utility.

California Governor Gavin Newsom has accused utilities of failing to adequately modernize and safely maintain their power systems.

BLACKOUTS

In Northern California, where firefighters struggled for a sixth day against the 76,000-acre (30,760-hectate) Kincade Fire in Sonoma County’s winemaking region, high-wind forecasts prompted Pacific Gas and Electric Co <PCG.N> to impose a new round of blackouts for nearly 600,000 homes and business.

That included about 400,000 customers blacked out in a power shutoff that PG&E instituted days earlier, the company said.

Early Wednesday, PG&E announced that it had restored about 73 percent of the 970,000 or so customers affected in earlier shutoffs.

Utilities serving Southern California’s more urban areas have imposed smaller-scale outages.

PG&E acknowledged last week that the Kincade Fire broke out near a damaged PG&E transmission tower at about the time a live high-voltage line carried by that tower malfunctioned.

The company filed for bankruptcy in January, citing $30 billion in potential liability from a series of deadly fires sparked by its equipment in 2017 and 2018.

Citing progress made against the Kincade fire, Newsom said the number of evacuees in Northern California had diminished from 190,000 at the peak of that blaze to 130,000 on Tuesday.

Property losses from the Kincade, listed at 30% contained, were put at 189 homes and other structures, double Monday’s tally.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles and Jonathan Allen in New York; additional reporting by Rollo Ross in Los Angeles and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Angus MacSwan, Jonathan Oatis and David Gregorio)

Dangerous dry winds forecast to sweep into fire-plagued Los Angeles

Dangerous dry winds forecast to sweep into fire-plagued Los Angeles
By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Extraordinarily dry, prolonged Santa Ana winds are predicted to gust through Southern California on Wednesday, prompting strong warnings from meteorologists as residents contend with damaging wildfires.

It was a daunting forecast for firefighters battling a 600-acre (240-hectare) blaze consuming the shrub-covered hills near the Getty Center museum in Los Angeles that has displaced thousands of residents. A new brush fire erupted on Wednesday morning in nearby Simi Valley in Ventura County, prompting officials to order mandatory evacuations in the suburbs around the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

The National Weather Service issued an “extreme red flag” warning for wildfires in Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen us use this warning,” said forecaster Marc Chenard. “It’s pretty bad.”

Statewide, the weather service issued warnings of dangerous fire weather conditions covering more than 34,000 square miles (88,000 square km), encompassing some 21 million people. Scientists have linked an increase in frequency and intensity of wildfires to climate change.

The Santa Ana winds are a regional weather phenomenon that sends gusts westward off the desert out to the Southern California coast. They are forecast to reach sustained speeds of 50 to 70 miles per hour (80 to 110 km per hour) on Wednesday and Thursday, raising the risk of sparks and embers being whipped into fresh wildfires in unburned areas.

Los Angeles Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas said extremely high winds could also force the grounding of water-dropping helicopters, a vital component of the firefighting arsenal.

City arson investigators say the Getty fire was likely caused by a broken tree branch being blown into power lines during high winds on Monday morning.

Electricity remained cut off to roughly half a million homes and businesses in Northern and Central California on Tuesday as a precaution by the state’s largest utility.

Governor Gavin Newsom has accused utilities of failing to adequately modernize and safely maintain their power systems.

GAINING GROUND

An army of some 1,100 firefighters battled the Getty fire Tuesday in a narrow window of slower winds. By early Wednesday, crews had managed to contain about 15 percent of the blaze.

In Northern California, where firefighters struggled for a sixth day against a 76,000-acre (30,760-hectate) blaze in Sonoma County’s winemaking region, high-wind forecasts prompted Pacific Gas and Electric Co <PCG.N> to impose a new round of blackouts for nearly 600,000 homes and business.

That included about 400,000 customers blacked out in a power shutoff that PG&E instituted days earlier, the company said.

Early Wednesday, PG&E announced that it had restored about 73 percent of the 970,000 or so customers affected in earlier shutoffs.

Utilities serving Southern California’s more highly urbanized areas have imposed smaller-scale outages.

PG&E has been implicated in the Sonoma County blaze, dubbed the Kincade fire. The utility acknowledged last week that the Kincade fire broke out near a damaged PG&E transmission tower at about the time a live high-voltage line carried by that tower malfunctioned.

The company filed for bankruptcy in January, citing $30 billion in potential liability from a series of deadly fires sparked by its equipment in 2017 and 2018.

Citing progress made against the Kincade fire, Newsom said the number of evacuees in Northern California had diminished from 190,000 at the peak of that blaze to 130,000 on Tuesday.

Property losses from the Kincade, listed at 15% contained, were put at 189 homes and other structures, double Monday’s tally.

The size of the Getty fire’s evacuation zone was reduced by roughly 3,000 homes on Tuesday but residents of about 7,000 homes remained displaced, fire officials said. At least a dozen homes have been destroyed so far.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles and Jonathan Allen in New York; additional reporting by Rollo Ross in Los Angeles and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Jonathan Oatis)

As wildfire rages in Los Angeles, city tells wealthy to warn staff of dangers

As wildfire rages in Los Angeles, city tells wealthy to warn staff of dangers
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – A wildfire raged through some of Los Angeles’ upscale neighborhoods on Tuesday, prompting city officials to chide wealthy evacuees to remember to tell their housekeepers and gardeners not to enter the danger zone.

Wind-driven blazes were burning largely uncontrolled in tinder-dry areas around Los Angeles as well as further north in California’s wine country.

Firefighters were battling to try to save thousands of imperiled homes as thousands of residents fled the area.

Los Angeles officials reminded wealthy evacuees to alert their service employees of the danger in light of news reports that several turned up for work at some of the 10,000 homes and businesses under smoky skies in the mandatory evacuation zone.

“I want to encourage people to be reaching out to anybody who may be showing up at their home and urge them to stay away,” Councilmember Mike Bonin told a news conference on Tuesday morning.

The brush fire that broke out early on Monday near the Getty Center art museum on the city’s West Side grew about 40 acres (16 hectares) overnight to 658 acres (266 hectares), Mayor Eric Garcetti told a news conference.

“That’s a good sign, actually, that it didn’t grow by more,” he said. Eight homes have been destroyed so far.

Across the state, hundreds of thousands of people were left in the dark as power companies cut off electricity to try to prevent more fires from being sparked by snapped cabling in the brushland.

Los Angeles Lakers basketball great LeBron James, “Terminator” actor and former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, as well other celebrities, said on Twitter they had been forced to evacuate their homes.

Weather forecasters say there could be worse to come, with the National Weather Service (NWS) predicting gusting winds in the mountains around Los Angeles, where planes have been dousing the fire from the air.

The Santa Ana winds in the south could hit their worst levels of the season and last into late Thursday, according to Marc Chenard of the NWS Weather Prediction Center.

Until at least Wednesday, in the bone-dry wine country about 70 miles (113 km) north of San Francisco, winds will hit up to 65 mph (101 kph) in the mountain areas and 35 mph (56 kph) in the valleys and coast around where the Kincade Fire, the state’s biggest, is burning, he said.

POWER CUTS

Pacific Gas and Electric Company <PCG.N> said early on Tuesday that almost 600,000 more electric customers would have their power shut off, starting early in the day, as a fire prevention measure ahead of the wind storms.

This is on top of the 970,000 PG&E customers already shut off, although about half of those were restored by Monday night, the company announced.

After four days of sharp declines, PG&E shares rebounded, up 17% at $4.49 on the New York Stock Exchange on Monday.

As of early Tuesday, the Kincade fire had scorched more than 75,000 acres (30,351 hectares), destroyed 123 homes and other structures and was 15 percent contained as it burned across parts of Sonoma County’s wine country, state fire officials said.

California Governor Gavin Newsom said he was confident that firefighters had secured enough perimeters around the Kincade fire that it no longer posed an imminent threat to two communities north of Santa Rosa, although he conceded the fight was not over.

The cause of the Kincade fire in Sonoma County, where 190,000 people were ordered to evacuate, remains under investigation.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman, Dan Whitcomb and Lisa Richwine in Los Angeles; additional reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York, Rich McKay in Atlanta and Noel Randewich in San Francisco; Editing by Scott Malone and Sandra Maler)

Wind-driven Los Angeles wildfire leaves one dead, forces 100,000 to flee

 

By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – A fierce, wind-driven wildfire swept through foothills and canyons along the northern edge of Los Angeles on Friday, engulfing homes, closing roads and devouring acre upon acre of dry brush and chaparral as 100,000 residents were forced to flee.

At least one death was attributed to the fire, a man who authorities said suffered a heart attack while trying to battle encroaching flames.

The blaze, dubbed the Saddleridge fire, had charred more than 4,700 acres by Friday morning, 12 hours after it ignited and then grew quickly into the largest and most ferocious among a spate of wildfires across Southern California.

As water-dropping helicopters and airplane tankers carrying fire retardant fought the flames from the air, ground crews battled the blaze at close range with hand tools and bulldozers, while firefighters lugging hoses from house to house scrambled to protect threatened neighborhoods.

One community at greatest risk was Porter Ranch, which lies adjacent to the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage field where a wellhead rupture caused a massive methane leak in 2015. U.S. Representative Brad Sherman, who lives in Porter Ranch, told Reuters he was among residents who fled as flames approached.

“I left a bit earlier than most because I was watching the news, and the moment they posted on the internet that I was in the mandatory evacuation area, I was out,” Sherman said by mobile phone as he walked back toward his home.

“It’s smoke from miles away from my home, a lot of smoke. I don’t see any flames. I see helicopter drops,” he added.

The conflagration was stoked by strong, dry Santa Ana winds blowing into the Los Angeles area from desert areas separated from the city by mountains to the east. The winds were moving the flames at a rate of 800 acres per hour, Los Angeles Fire Department officials said at a morning news conference.

“This is a very dynamic fire,” Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas told reporters, as he urged residents in harm’s way to heed evacuation orders. “Do not wait to leave.”

Los Angeles County Fire Captain Tony Imbrenda told local radio station KPCC that high winds also were making it more difficult to effectively fight the flames from the air, causing dissipation of water and fire-retardant drops before they could hit the ground.

Similarly strong winds in northern and central California prompted utility giant Pacific Gas & Electric to impose a precautionary shutoff of power to hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses to reduce the risk of wildfires. Governor Gavin Newsom said on Thursday the unprecedented measure faulted the utility for what he called years of mismanagement.

At daybreak, the Saddleridge fire was still completely uncontained and its cause was under investigation.

Some 23,000 homes and around 100,000 residents were under mandatory evacuation orders that were expected to remain in effect for at least a few days, fire officials said. A number of emergency shelters quickly filled to capacity, as evacuees wondered whether their homes were still standing.

“They don’t know what’s going on. They’ve been evacuated, and that’s all they know,” Michelle Gross, the director of a Red Cross shelter set up at the Granada Hills Recreation Center, said when reached by phone.

The fire prompted several freeway closures in the northern part of L.A.’s San Fernando Valley. At least 25 homes in two neighborhoods were destroyed early on Friday, authorities said.

About 70 miles to the east, authorities also fought to gain an upper hand on the Sandalwood Fire in Riverside County, which had scorched about 830 acres and destroyed 76 homes and other structures by Friday around the town of Calimesa.

One fatality was reported, along with two people who were unaccounted for. The blaze was just 10% contained, Riverside County Fire Department (RCFD) officials said.

The Sandalwood fire erupted on Thursday afternoon when a garbage truck dumped burning trash that spread onto vegetation, the RCFD and California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) said in a statement.

POWER CUTS

Much of Northern California, from San Francisco to the Oregon border, remained under a statewide “red flag” fire alert for heightened fire danger on Friday.

Firefighters have been able to quickly contain most of the other blazes around the state.

By late Thursday, PG&E announced it had restored power to more than half of its customers whose power was turned off, and that 312,000 remained without electricity.

More than 250,000 California households and businesses were without power on Friday morning, PowerOutage.US reported, nearly all of them PG&E customers in northern California.

PG&E filed for bankruptcy in January 2019, citing potential civil liabilities in excess of $30 billion from major wildfires linked to its transmission wires and other equipment.

As winds moved south Friday, a power cutoff similar to PG&E’s was underway at Southern California Edison, which warned more than 173,000 customers they could face outages.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter, Rich McKay, Andrew Hay, Dan Whitcomb; Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis and Andrew Hay; Writing by Frank McGurty; Editing by Pravin Char, Nick Zieminski and Tom Brown)

California governor says broad power shutdown to prevent fires ‘unacceptable’

By Alex Dobuzinskis and Andrew Hay

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – California Governor Gavin Newsom called a widespread electricity shutdown triggered by a power company to prevent wildfires “unacceptable”, as gale-force winds and dry weather posed a critical fire threat to the north of the state.

Pacific Gas and Electric Co (PG&E) has imposed unprecedented shut-offs that left more than 730,000 homes and workplaces in northern California without power on the second day of planned outages.

But as of late Thursday, power was restored to more than half of those who had lost it, PG&E officials said in a release. About 312,000 electric customers remained without power as of 10 p.m. officials said.

Some of the state’s most devastating wildfires were sparked in recent years by damage to electrical transmission lines from high winds, with flames then spreading through tinder-dry vegetation to populated areas.

Newsom, a Democrat, told a news conference on Thursday he did not fault the utility for shutting off electricity as a safety measure, but he described the outage as too broad and said it resulted from years of mismanagement by the utility.

“We’re seeing a scale and scope of something that no state in the 21st century should experience,” Newsom said. “What’s happened is unacceptable and it’s happened because of neglect.”

The remarks were the most pointed comments Newsom has directed at PG&E since the outages began early on Wednesday. Among the questions he raised was whether the utility was too large, with a service area covering more than 40 counties.

He also faulted PG&E for putting what he called “greed” ahead of investments in its infrastructure to protect the electrical grid from dangerous winds.

PG&E filed for bankruptcy in January 2019, citing potential civil liabilities in excess of $30 billion from major wildfires linked to its transmission wires and other equipment.

PG&E Chief Executive Bill Johnson acknowledged that his company had left “millions of people” without a “fundamental service” they expect and deserve.

“This is not how we want to serve you,” he told a media briefing in San Francisco, adding that PG&E “was not adequately prepared” for such a large power outage.

‘THIRD WORLD COUNTRY’

As high winds moved south, a similar cut-off was under way by neighboring utility Southern California Edison, which warned that more than 173,000 customers could lose power in parts of eight counties, including Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Ventura.

Residents, business owners and even public officials expressed frustration about the blackouts, which the utility began on a much smaller scale last year during times of high fire risk.

“Northern California is not a Third World country,” the San Jose Mercury Statesman said in an editorial. “It’s unacceptable that the region is being forced to endure this level of disruption as the long-term strategy for dealing with the threat of wildfires.”

PG&E, California’s biggest investor-owned utility, said power would be restored to areas once up to 77 mph (124 kph) winds die down and 2,500 miles (4,025 km) of transmission lines could be inspected.

“We faced a choice between hardship or safety, and we chose safety,” Michael Lewis, PG&E’s senior vice president of electric operations, said in a statement.

ECONOMIC COST

The National Weather Service said the hot gusty winds that usually hit northern California in October, sometimes called the “Diablo Winds”, would continue into Friday morning.

Much of northern California, from San Francisco to the Oregon border, remains under a state “red flag” fire alert, although no major blazes have been reported.

“As soon as the weather passes, PG&E will begin safety inspections with 6,300 field personnel and 45 helicopters standing at the ready once we get the all clear,” the utility said in a tweet on Thursday.

Oakland supermarkets brought in refrigeration trucks to save food.

Michael Wara of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment estimated the economic cost of the shutdown could reach $2.5 billion, with small businesses hit hardest as they typically lacked back-up generators.

In Santa Rosa, a California wine country town where entire subdivisions were destroyed by a deadly 2017 wildfire, restaurateurs Mark and Terri Stark said they had to close one of their six restaurants after it lost power.

“This is preventative medicine and medicine sometimes is not good to take,” said Mark Stark, 60, who lost one restaurant in the 2017 blaze. The fires in that region killed 46 people.

“Those fires and what they caused are still very real for people in our ‘hood,” he said.

(Reporting By Andrew Hay in TAOS, N.M. and Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angleles; additional reporting by Scott Disavino in New York and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Bill Tarrant, Cynthia Osterman, Tom Hogue and Richard Pullin)