Wildfire leaves California’s oldest park too hazardous for visitors

By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) – The lightning-sparked wildfire that ravaged Big Basin Redwoods State Park, California’s oldest state park, has left it too dangerous for visitors, officials said Tuesday during a tour of the burned area by Governor Gavin Newsom.

Numerous blazes that grew together near Santa Cruz and razed the visitor center, lodge and nature museum also charred redwood, fir and oak trees, leaving many weakened or dead and likely to fall, parks district Superintendent Chris Spohrer said, according to a pool report provided to news organizations.

It will take a year or more to find and remove all of the trees that pose a danger of falling, Spohrer said.

“If this is not a gut punch, then you’re truly not conscious as a human being,” Newsom, a Democrat, said after the tour of the park established in 1902.

One tree still smoldered near two massive ancient redwoods, dubbed the Mother and Father of the forest.

Another tree, famous for having an opening in its massive trunk large enough for an automobile, suffered moderate to extensive damage during the fire but remains standing. Newsom walked inside, expressing awe at its apparent survival.

The fires in the Santa Cruz Mountains where the park is located broke out Aug. 17 after an hours-long lightning storm that grew into one of more than two dozen major conflagrations that destroyed homes and forced nearly 200,000 people to evacuate in different parts of California.

Nearly 14,00 lightning strikes, mostly in central and northern California, have ignited hundreds of individual fires since Aug. 15. Those fires have collectively charred more than 1.48 million acres – a landscape larger than the state of Delaware, according to CalFire.

Seven fatalities have been confirmed, and nearly 2,500 homes and other structures have been reduced to ruin.

(Writing by Sharon Bernstein; editing by Bill Tarrant and Cynthia Osterman)

New Southern California wildfire expected to linger for days

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A Southern California wildfire that engulfed more than 10,000 acres in less than a day was slowed on Thursday by light rains, but is still raging and will remain a formidable threat for several days, firefighters said.

No injuries or deaths have been linked to the Lake Fire, which broke out late on Wednesday in a section of the Angeles National Forest about 60 miles (97 km) northwest of downtown Los Angeles, but some evacuations have been ordered, they said.

“This will be a major fire for several days,” U.S. Forest Service regional Fire Chief Robert Garcia told reporters.

“The current weather that we started with this morning has helped buy us some time to get some relief crews out there and start developing some preventive control anchor points,” Garcia said.

Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said the fire destroyed “several structures” of the more than 100 located in the evacuation area in the communities of Palmdale and Castaic.

“Many structures were saved because of the actions of the firefighters last night, who were up all night,” Osby said.

The cause of the fire is under investigation, he added.

Officials said an expected return of hot, dry weather later on Thursday, combined with steep terrain in the wooded area, which loaded with dry brush, will continue to hamper the efforts of firefighters.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Alistair Bell)

Ring of fire: Australian state declares emergency as wildfires approach Sydney

By Colin Packham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia’s most populous state declared its second emergency in as many months on Thursday as extreme heat and strong winds stoked more than 100 bushfires, including three major blazes on Sydney’s doorstep.

A day after Australia recorded its hottest day on record, thick smoke blanketed the harbor city, shrouded the Opera House and brought many outdoor activities to a halt.

The state of emergency declaration gave firefighters broad powers to control government resources, force evacuations, close roads and shut down utilities across New South Wales, which is home to more than 7 million people.

Authorities said nearly 120 fires remained ablaze by late afternoon, more than half of which are uncontrolled, and with temperatures forecast to top 45 degrees Celsius (113°F) in some areas, officials warned residents to be on high alert.

“The firefront has been spreading very quickly and intensely,” NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons told reporters in Sydney, adding that two firefighters had been airlifted to hospital with burns to their faces and airways. “It’s still a very difficult and dangerous set of circumstances.”

Days out from Christmas, a time when many Australians head to the coast for the holidays, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian advised people to make sure “you are prepared to change your plans should circumstances change.”

In Shoalhaven, a popular coastal destination some 190 km (120 miles) south of Sydney, local mayor Amanda Findley said people were poised to evacuate.

“There is a large amount of smoke looming over the city, which shows how close the fire is,” Findley told Reuters by telephone. “It is extremely hot and windy now so we are all worried the fire could spread. People are really worried that they may lose everything.”

The RFS posted footage on its official Twitter account showing firefighters tackling one of the three blazes ringing Sydney. A waterbomber aircraft was dwarfed by thick grey and black billowing cloud as it attempted to douse flames in bushland just meters away from homes.

Australia has been battling wildfires across much of its east coast for weeks, leaving six people dead, more than 680 homes destroyed and nearly 3 million acres (1.2 million hectares) of bushland burnt. Berejiklian said as many as 40 homes had been destroyed on Thursday.

SMOKY SYDNEY

Australia on Wednesday broke all-time heat records for the second day running, with maximum temperatures reaching an average of 41.9 degree Celsius, the Bureau of Meteorology said.

Some 1,700 firefighters have been deployed across NSW, but officials warned that was still not enough to cover every potential danger and urged people in high risk areas to evacuate while it was still safe to do so.

The current state of emergency will last for seven days, while a total fire ban that has been in place since Tuesday will remain until midnight on Saturday.

The major fires around Sydney, which is home to more than 5 million people, have resulted in days of heavy pollution in the city usually known for its sparkling harbor and blue skies.

One megafire in the Kanangra Boyd National Park to the city’s southwest had crept to the very outskirts of Campbelltown, a suburb of 157,000 people.

By late afternoon, Sydney was sitting at No.4 on the IQAir AirVisual live rankings of pollution in global cities, above Dhaka, Mumbai, Shanghai and Jakarta.

Many commuters have donned breathing masks in recent weeks as air quality has plunged to hazardous levels not previously seen in the city.

NSW Ambulance Commissioner Dominic Morgan said the service had experienced a 10% surge in call-outs for patients suffering respiratory conditions over the past week and urged susceptible people to remain indoors and keep their medication close.

POLITICAL STORM

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has weathered a storm of criticism on social media in recent days for going on an overseas holiday during the emergency, adding to criticism that his government is failing to deliver adequate climate change policies.

As local media reported Morrison was in Hawaii on a family holiday, about 500 protesters gathered outside his official Sydney residence to demand urgent action on climate change. Morrison’s office refused to confirm his whereabouts.

One protestor, wearing an Hawaiian shirt, carried a sign reading, “ScoMo, where the bloody hell are you?” referencing the leader’s nickname and a decade-old international advertisement for Tourism Australia that was banned in several countries because the language was deemed offensive.

Australia’s low-lying Pacific neighbors have been particularly critical of the coal-rich nation’s climate policies following modest progress at the U.N. climate talks in Madrid.

“It was particularly disappointing to see our Pacific cousins in Australia actively standing in the way of progress at a time when we have been watching in horror as their own country is ablaze,” Marshall Islands president Hilda Heine said in a statement on Wednesday.

(Reporting by John Mair, Colin Packham and Jonathan Barrett; Writing by Wayne Cole; Editing by Jane Wardell)

PG&E failed to inspect transmission lines that caused deadly 2018 wildfire: state probe

PG&E failed to inspect transmission lines that caused deadly 2018 wildfire: state probe
By Kanishka Singh

(Reuters) – Bankrupt California power producer PG&E Corp <PCG.N> did not properly inspect and replace transmission lines before a faulty wire sparked a wildfire that killed more than 80 people in 2018, a probe by a state regulator has concluded.

The Caribou-Palermo transmission line was identified as the cause of the Camp Fire last year, which virtually incinerated the Northern California town of Paradise and stands as the state’s most lethal blaze.

“PG&E failed to maintain an effective inspection and maintenance program to identify and correct hazardous conditions on its transmission lines … as are necessary to promote the safety and health of its patrons and the public,” a 700-page report by the California Public Utilities Commission said.

The report was dated Nov. 8, 2019. It was released to the public on Monday.

The probe concluded that PG&E’s inspection shortcomings were part of a pattern of ‘inadequate’ execution of those tasks.

In response to the report, PG&E acknowledged the role of its equipment in the fire and apologized.

“We remain deeply sorry about the role our equipment had in this tragedy, and we apologize to all those impacted by the devastating Camp Fire,” the company told Reuters in an emailed statement, adding that it accepted the probe’s conclusion that the company’s electrical transmission lines caused that fire.

The utility filed for bankruptcy in January, citing potential civil liabilities of more than $30 billion from wildfires linked to its gear.

Last week, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Dennis Montali ruled that PG&E is strictly liable for fires tied to its equipment, even if the utility was not negligent.

PG&E was fined $1.6 billion for a deadly 2010 gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno, California.

(The refiled story fixes typo in headline)

(Reporting by Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru. Editing by Gerry Doyle)

Fast-moving fire threatens homes in Santa Barbara County

A firefighter battles the Cave fire in Los Padres National Forest near East Camino Cielo, California, U.S. November 25, 2019, in this picture obtained from social media. Mandatory credit Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department/via REUTERS

By Subrat Patnaik

(Reuters) – Fire ripped through brush and woodland on hills above the Californian city of Santa Barbara early on Tuesday, forcing residents to leave their homes, authorities said.

The Santa Barbara County declared a local emergency at 10:30 p.m (0630 GMT) on Monday night, after a fire broke out in Los Padres National Forest at about 4:15 p.m.

The flames spread quickly to cover about 3,000 acres by the evening and have not yet been contained, Santa Barbara County said in a statement.

Firefighters battle flames off Highway 154 north of Santa Barbara, California, U.S. November 25, 2019, in this picture obtained from social media. Mandatory credit Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department/via REUTERS

Firefighters battle flames off Highway 154 north of Santa Barbara, California, U.S. November 25, 2019, in this picture obtained from social media. Mandatory credit Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department/via REUTERS

“An evacuation warning is being issued for the area north of Foothill Road and Ontare to Gibraltar Road,” the office said, referring to areas north of the city.

The blaze, dubbed the “cave fire”, started near East Camino Cielo and Painted Cave Road in the forest.

“The Cave Fire is advancing toward major population areas in the cities of Santa Barbara and Goleta,” the county said.

Firefighters from neighboring areas were rushing to Santa Barbara to help the local service control the blaze, authorities said.

(Reporting by Subrat Patnaik in Bengaluru; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Ed Osmond)

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)

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)

New Fast-moving Los Angeles wildfire destroys homes, prompts evacuation orders

Fast-moving Los Angeles wildfire destroys homes, prompts evacuation orders
(Reuters) – Thousands of people in Los Angeles were ordered to evacuate after a fast-moving brush fire ignited early on Monday morning near the Getty Center museum, the latest outbreak in a wildfire season that has scorched parts of California.

Spot fires break out on a hillside as the Getty Fire burns in west Los Angeles, California, U.S. October 28, 2019. REUTERS/Gene Blevins

Spot fires break out on a hillside as the Getty Fire burns in west Los Angeles, California, U.S. October 28, 2019. REUTERS/Gene Blevins

The fire broke out around 1:30 a.m. (0830 GMT) and has since grown to consume more than 500 acres (202 hectares) in the scrub-covered hills around Interstate 405, near some of the city’s most expensive homes. Commuters posted videos of slopes aglow with orange flames close to the road’s edge.

At least five homes had burned down but there were no reported injuries, Mayor Eric Garcetti told reporters at a news conference with fire officials, warning that he expected the number to rise.

“This is a fire that quickly spread,” he said, urging residents in the evacuation zone, which encompasses more than 3,300 homes, to get out quickly.

Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James, who lives in the area, said he had heeded the warning and had been driving around before dawn with his family looking for shelter.

“Finally found a place to accommodate us!” he wrote a short time later on Twitter. “Crazy night man!”

Officials at the Getty art museum said the fire was burning to the north of the building, which was designed with thick stone walls to prevent fire from damaging its treasures.

The fierce winds fanning wildfires elsewhere in the state, including a large fire consuming parts of the picturesque wine country north of San Francisco, were expected to abate on Monday.

But forecasters with the National Weather Service said high winds would return later in the week and could be the strongest so far this year in the south of the state.

Marc Chenard, a forecaster with the NWS’s Weather Prediction Center, said wind gusts in northern California would abate by midday and in the south of the state by later in the afternoon.

Wind gusts can be between 50 to 60 miles per hour (80-96 kph), with some significantly higher, he said.

The northern California wine country has borne the brunt of the fires, with 84 square miles (218 sq km) burned and 190,000 people evacuated in the Kincade fire.

Only about 5% of that fire was contained early on Monday after crews lost ground against the wind-driven wildfire a day earlier.

About 3,000 people were battling the Kincade Fire, the worst of more than a dozen major blazes that have damaged or destroyed nearly 400 structures and prompted Governor Gavin Newsom to declare a statewide emergency.

Investigators have not yet said what they believed caused the blaze, although it ignited near a broken wire on a Pacific Gas & Electric <PCG.N> transmission tower.

POWER OUTAGES

More than a million homes and businesses were without power on Monday morning, most of those from planned outages. Forecasts of high winds had prompted PG&E to shut off power to 940,000 customers in 43 counties on Saturday night to guard against the risk of touching off wildfires.

PG&E expects to issue a weather all clear for safety inspections and restoration work to begin early Monday morning for the northern Sierras and North Coast, the company said.

The governor has been sharply critical of PG&E, saying corporate greed and mismanagement kept it from upgrading its infrastructure while wildfire hazards have steadily worsened over the past decade.

PG&E filed for bankruptcy in January, citing billions of dollars in civil liabilities from deadly wildfires sparked by its equipment in 2017 and 2018.

(Reporting by Stephen Lam in Healdsburg, California, additional reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Scott Malone, Steve Orlofsky and Bill Berkrot)

California wine country fire began near damaged PG&E tower, 2,000 flee

California wine country fire began near damaged PG&E tower, 2,000 flee
By Stephen Lam

GEYSERVILLE, Calif. (Reuters) – A wind-driven wildfire that forced some 2,000 people to flee homes in Northern California’s wine country on Thursday erupted near the base of a damaged high-voltage transmission tower owned by Pacific Gas and Electric Co, utility and fire officials said.

The company, a unit of bankrupt holding company PG&E Corp <PCG.N>, acknowledged in an “electric safety incident” report to the California Public Utilities Commission that one of its power lines malfunctioned at about the time and location of the fire’s origin on Wednesday night.

It said a PG&E technician inspecting the site on Thursday found the area taped off by state fire department personnel who brought to his attention “what appeared to be a broken jumper on the same tower”.

PG&E had shut down some electric distribution wires in the area as a precaution against dangerously high winds at the time, but high-voltage transmission lines such as that in question were left on as they were deemed durable enough for the forecast conditions, the utility said in a public statement.

The transmission tower involved had been examined this year in PG&E’s wildfire safety inspection program, it added.

Neither PG&E nor the commission said whether the damaged tower or the malfunctioning transmission line attached to it were suspected of igniting the blaze, dubbed the Kincade fire, which has destroyed about a dozen homes and other structures.

The cause is being investigated, said the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, which listed the same place and time of origin for the fire as the tower incident reported by PG&E.

PG&E filed for bankruptcy protection last January, citing more than $30 billion in liability stemming from devastating wildfires in 2017 and 2018 found to have been sparked by its equipment.

The Kincade fire in Sonoma County was the worst of several blazes raging throughout California as PG&E and other utilities cut off electricity to nearly 200,000 homes and businesses in preventive blackouts to reduce wildfire risks from high winds.

Hundreds of miles to the south in the Canyon County community of Los Angeles County, a blaze called the Tick fire prompted evacuation of an estimated 40,000 residents. Flames consumed about 5,000 acres (2,000 hectares) and destroyed an unknown number of structures, according to the Los Angeles City News Service.

HISTORIC TOWN EVACUATED

By Thursday, the Sonoma County blaze had scorched about 10,000 acres (4,000 hectares), Cal Fire said. No injuries have been reported.

Ground crews fought the blaze at close range with hand tools and bulldozers, assisted by water-dropping helicopters and airplane tankers carrying payloads of fire-retardant slurry.

The Sonoma County sheriff’s office ordered the evacuation of Geyserville, a town of nearly 900 people, founded in the mid-19th century and named for nearby hot springs and geothermal attractions.

A Reuters photographer saw about a dozen homes in flames in the town on Thursday.

By midday, mandatory evacuation notices covered a total of roughly 2,000 people, the sheriff’s office said. An evacuation warning in the northern end of the nearby larger town of Healdsburg, urged residents to be ready to flee at a moment’s notice.

Both towns, about 75 miles (120 km) north of San Francisco, are hubs of upscale restaurants, wine-tasting rooms, inns, and shops surrounded by rolling hills dotted by vineyards.

Large parts of California were under red-flag alerts this week following forecasts of hot, dry winds blowing into populated areas from deserts to the east.

The number of homes and workplaces without power could climb to more than 500,000 under worst-case scenarios for precautionary outages this week, according to PG&E, Southern California Edison <EIX.N> and other electricity providers.

PG&E said in a statement on Thursday it had shut off power for about 178,000 houses and businesses in northern California during an Oct. 23 public safety power shutoff (PSPS) event.

The company has restored power to 93% of those customers following announcements that the weather was “all-clear,” the statement said.

“Safety patrols, inspections and power restoration took place throughout the day and continues through the night,” PG&E said, adding that it expects power to be restored to all customers on Friday, unless any equipment is damaged and needs repair.

Marc Chenard, a forecaster with the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center, said that while the winds have abated for Friday in northern California, the area is in for more high winds this weekend.

“Yes, it’s improving, most of the warnings there have been lifted for now,” Chenard said. “But we have another (wind) event coming in for Saturday and at least through Sunday. This isn’t over.”

Earlier on Thursday, California Governor Gavin Newsom, who called PG&E’s handling of that incident “unacceptable,” said the company appeared to have “significantly” improved its readiness for this week’s wildfire threat.

Chenard said that hot dry winds, called the Santa Ana winds in Southern California east of San Bernardino and down to San Diego are expected to continue through the weekend.

(Reporting by Stephen Lam in Geyserville; Additional reporting by Maria Caspani in New York, Subrat Patnaik in Bengaluru and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman and Dan Whitcomb in Culver City, Calif.; Editing by Bill Tarrant, Leslie Adler and Lincoln Feast)

California wildfires force evacuations, cause power outages

California wildfires force evacuations, cause power outages
By Subrat Patnaik and Rich McKay

(Reuters) – California emergency officials on Thursday ordered hundreds of people to evacuate a historic wine country town north of San Francisco, and nearly 200,000 were without power, as a growing wildfire spread in Sonoma County.

Driven by strong winds, the Kincade fire engulfed some 10,000 acres (4,047 hectares) by Thursday, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The Sonoma County Sheriff issued a mandatory evacuation order for the town of Geyserville, home to almost 900 people.

A video posted on social media by a local reporter showed a glowing blaze against the still-dark backdrop of an early morning sky and a strong wind buffeting into the microphone.

Large parts of California were under red-flag alerts this week, suggesting a heightened risk of fire, amid high temperatures and powerful winds, officials said.

About 185,000 customers were without power in the state on Thursday morning, according to poweroutage.us.

More than half a million homes and businesses in the state could lose power this week as utilities, including Pacific Gas & Electric <PCG.N> and Southern California Edison <SCE_pe.A>, cut off electricity as a preventive measure against wildfires.

Over 308,000 customers in seven counties, including Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Ventura in southern California, were under consideration for Public Safety Power Shutoffs, Southern California Edison said.

National Weather Service meteorologist Marc Chenard said the worst of the winds would arrive later in the day and into Friday.

“It looks like at its worst, southern California will see wind gusts of 55 miles per hour (89 kph). Down in some of the coastal areas, the winds could reach 75 miles per hour (121 kph) later today,” he said.

Power lines could be knocked down, potentially igniting fires among arid trees and vegetation, according to earlier forecasts.

Bankrupt Californian power producer PG&E cut off electricity to more than 730,000 homes and workplaces in northern California earlier this month to try to reduce the risk of wildfires amid extremely windy and dry weather.

Chenard added that northern California could experience dangerous wind gusts of up to 45 mph.

“This is not going to abate until at least this weekend,” he said.

(Reporting by Subrat Patnaik in Bengaluru and Rich McKay in Atlanta, additional reporting by Maria Caspani in New York; Editing by Scott Malone and Bernadette Baum)