Australia calls for another mass evacuation as monster bushfires return

By Martin Petty and Colin Packham

MERIMBULA, Australia/SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australian authorities urged another mass evacuation across the heavily populated southeast on Thursday as a return of hot weather fanned huge bushfires threatening several towns and communities.

Victoria state Premier Daniel Andrews urged communities to be on alert ahead of the extreme conditions.

“If you receive instructions to leave, then you must leave,” Andrews said in a televised briefing. “That is the only way to guarantee your safety.”

Parts of Kangaroo Island, a wildlife-rich tourist spot off the southeast coast where Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Wednesday made a plea for foreign tourists not to be deterred by the fires, were again evacuated on Thursday.

“I urge everyone to heed warnings, follow advice, and to head to the east part of the island, which is deemed safe at this point,” South Australia Fire Chief Mark Jones said in a separate briefing in Adelaide.

A third of the island has been destroyed.

Twenty-seven people have been killed this fire season, according to the federal government, as the monster fires have scorched through more than 10.3 million hectares (25.5 million acres) of land, an area the size of South Korea.

Thousands have been made homeless and thousands have had to evacuate repeatedly because of the volatility of the fires.

Residents of the coastal town of Mallacoota, where thousands of people were stranded on a beach for days until a military evacuation that only ended on Wednesday, were among those again advised to flee.

“If we evacuate, where do we go?” said Mark Tregellas, who spent New Year’s Eve on a boat ramp as fire destroyed much of his town, and one of about 1,000 people who decided to stay.

“The electricity is slowly coming back but everyone is reliant on generators, and fuel for those is very limited,” he told Reuters by telephone from his house.

“People have now run out of petrol so most in the town are now riding on bicycles.”

Following are some highlights of what is happening in the bushfire crisis:

* A water bombing helicopter ditched in a dam on New South Wales South Coast on Thursday. The pilot was safe.

* Authorities have warned that the huge fires, spurred by high temperatures, wind and a three-year drought, will persist until there is substantial rainfall. The weather agency said there was no sign of that for months.

“It takes a huge amount of rain to put out bushfires of this intensity and of this scale. That’s not forecast,” South Australia Fire Chief Jones told reporters.

* Weather officials in South Australia issued a severe weather warning for some parts of the state’s north.

* New South Wales fire officials warned of “extreme fire danger” in the state’s alpine region.

* Victoria state extended its disaster alert level for another two days.

* The Australian Bureau of Meteorology reported only 6% of typical annual rainfall last year, while daytime temperatures were more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above normal: “Australia’s getting warmer, the fire season’s getting longer and the severity of the fire weather during that season is getting more frequent and severe.”

* New South Wales announced new funding of A$1 billion ($686 million) to rebuild.

* Mining magnate Andrew Forrest pledged A$70 million to a recovery package, including a force of more than 1,000 volunteers from the mining and agriculture sectors to help with rebuilding.

* 1,870 homes have been destroyed on the badly hit New South Wales coast.

* Moody’s Analytics said the cost of the fires could easily surpass that of deadly 2009 Black Saturday fires that destroyed 450,000 hectares of land, which cost an estimated A$4.4 billion.

* The prime minister has pledged A$2 billion ($1.4 billion) to a newly created National Bushfire Recovery Agency.

* About 100 firefighters from the United States and Canada are helping with another 140 expected in coming weeks.

* Malaysia has approved a plan to send 65 fire and rescue personnel to help. The deployment is awaiting Australian approval.

* Ecologists at the University of Sydney have estimated 1 billion animals have been killed or injured.

* The fires have emitted 400 megatonnes of carbon dioxide and produced harmful pollutants, the EU’s Copernicus monitoring program said.

* Smoke has drifted across the Pacific, affecting cities in South America, and may have reached the Antarctic, the U.N. World Meteorological Organization said.

(Reporting by Colin Packham, Martin Petty, Sonali Paul, Paulina Duran, Swati Pandey and Praveen Menon; writing by Byron Kaye; Editing by Jane Wardell, Robert Birsel)

Smoke stalls rescues as Australia plans for next fiery onslaught

By Sonali Paul and Swati Pandey

MELBOURNE/SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australian officials took advantage of better weather on Monday to reopen roads blocked by wildfires and move some people to safety although thick smoke stalled rescue efforts and hundreds of people remained stranded.

Fires have ravaged more than 8 million hectares (19.8 million acres) of land across the country, an area nearly the size of Austria, killing 25 people, destroying thousands of building and leaving some towns without electricity and mobile coverage.

Police on Monday confirmed the death of a 71-year-old man on the south coast of New South Wales (NSW) state who was reported missing on Dec. 31.

A second day of light rain and cool winds brought some relief from heat-fueled blazes that consumed parts of two states over the weekend, but officials warned the dangerous weather was expected to return this week.

Victoria state Premier Daniel Andrews said about 400 people were airlifted on Sunday out of Mallacoota, a small, coastal holiday town.

“We had a plan to airlift another 300 out today. Sadly smoke means that is not possible,” he said.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who has come under criticism for what opponents call his government’s failure to tackle climate change, announced A$2 billion ($1.4 billion) over two years for a newly formed National Bushfire Recovery Agency.

“What we are focusing on here is the human cost and the rebuilding cost for people’s lives,” Morrison told reporters in Canberra.

He said nearly 4,000 cattle and sheep have been killed in the fires. Countless wild animals have been killed.

Dean Linton, a resident of Jindabyne in the Snowy Mountains, used the break in the immediate threat to his town to visit his wife and four children who had fled to Sydney.

He also picked up a fire-fighting pump and generator to help him protect the family home.

“There’s a lot of fuel in that national park; it would only take one lightning strike,” Linton told Reuters.

The bushfire season started earlier than normal this year following a three-year drought that has left much of the country’s bushland tinder-dry.

Following are some highlights of what is happening:

* New Zealand Defence Force said the first of three air force helicopters being sent to help departed on Monday while the other two were expected over the next two days.

* There were no emergency warnings in fire-ravaged states on Monday following the weather change. Two people were missing as 146 fires burned in New South Wales (NSW) but all were back at the “advice” level, the lowest alert rating.

* Victoria state had 39 fires with 13 “watch and act” alerts. All missing people had been accounted for, authorities said.

* About 67,000 people have left or been evacuated from fire-ravaged areas in Victoria, state Emergency Services Minister Lisa Neville said.

* Victoria set up a Bushfire Recovery Agency, with initial funding of A$50 million. The recovery is expected to cost “a lot more” than A$500 million, state premier Andrews said.

* Fire officials said light rain that has brought some relief posed problems for back-burning efforts to starve fires of fuel.

* NSW state power distributor Essential Energy said its network had suffered “significant damage”, with almost 24,000 customers without power. It might take a while to restore power to some areas because of the extent of damage and difficulty in gaining safe access, it said. Affected areas include Batemans Bay on the New South Wales south coast.

* As conditions eased, the NSW fire service said residents of Bega, Tathra, Merimbula, Eden, Pambula, Bermagui and villages to the north and south can now return though they need to monitor conditions.

* Insurers have received 5,850 bushfire-related claims in NSW, Victoria, South Australia and Queensland since the Insurance Council declared a bushfire catastrophe on Nov. 8.

* Losses are estimated at A$375 million since November, with a further A$56 million in insured property losses in September and October, the Insurance Council said. Figures do not include properties lost over the past 24 to 36 hours in areas such as the NSW Southern Highlands and south coast.

* Accommodation provider Aspen Group <APZ.AX> said it expects a A$500,000 hit to both revenue and net operating income from the fires.

* Canberra was running short of masks as smoke blanketed the capital, ACT emergency services said. The National Gallery of Australia said it was closed to protect visitors and art works. The government department responsible for coordinating disaster response also closed due to poor air quality.

* Pictures on social media showed the city of Melbourne cloaked in thick smoke.

* Actor Russell Crowe skipped Hollywood’s Golden Globes ceremony, where he won an award for playing former Fox News Chief Executive Roger Ailes in the TV series “The Loudest Voice in the Room”. Presenter Jennifer Aniston said Crowe stayed in Australia to protect his family from the fires and read remarks he had prepared in which he said the fires were “climate change based”.

* Prime Minister Morrison faced more criticism of his handling of the crisis. “Poor political judgment is one thing. Competency is another thing altogether. This is the political danger zone Scott Morrison wants to avoid,” Rupert Murdoch’s the Australian newspaper, a supporter of the government, said in an article by the newspaper’s national affairs editor.

* Forty-one U.S. firefighters are in Victoria with a further 70 from Canada and the United States expected to join on Jan. 8, the Victoria Country Fire Authority said on Twitter.

(Reporting by Sonali Paul and Swati Pandey; Additional reporting by Paulina Duran and Jonathan Barrett in Sydney and Lisa Richwine in Los Angeles; Editing by Jane Wardell, Robert Birsel)

Thousands trapped on Australian beaches by dangerous bushfires

By Sonali Paul and Swati Pandey

MELBOURNE/SYDNEY (Reuters) – Thousands swarmed to beaches on Australia’s east coast on Tuesday to escape fierce wildfires bearing down on several seaside towns, as the government readied naval vessels and military helicopters to aid firefighting and evacuations.

Government officials called for Australian military support and assistance from U.S. and Canadian fire crews as authorities confirmed two people had died overnight, taking to 11 the total deaths in wildfires since the beginning of October.

The huge bushfires have destroyed more than 4 million hectares (10 million acres), with new blazes sparked into life almost daily by extremely hot and windy conditions in bushland left tinder dry after a three-year drought.

Fueled by searing temperatures and high winds, more than 200 fires are now burning across the southeastern states of New South Wales and Victoria, threatening several towns and snapping their power, mobile and internet links.

“This is absolutely one of the worst fire seasons we’ve seen,” Shane Fitzsimmons, commissioner of the NSW Rural Fire Service, told a briefing in Sydney.

“It’s going to be a very long, difficult dangerous night still ahead. It’s going to be another difficult day again tomorrow.”

Authorities said the main firefront was moving up the coast and warned those in its path to seek shelter close to the beach.

About 4,000 people in the town of Mallacoota in Victoria headed to the waterfront after the main road was cut off. Those who could not make it there scrambled for shelter in a gymnasium and other public buildings, as emergency sirens wailed.

Some of those trapped in the town posted images of blood-red, smoke-filled skies on social media. One beachfront photograph showed people lying shoulder-to-shoulder on the sand, some wearing gas masks.

It looked “a lot like Armageddon,” said David Jeffrey, the owner of the Wave Oasis guesthouse, adding, “It’s terrifying.”

Fisherman Steve Casement said he had lost his house in Mallacoota to the fires.

“We are stuck here now,” he told Reuters by telephone. “Everyone is pretty shocked at the moment, most of my mates are in the same position.

“Right now, I am on a trailer watching the town burn down, listening to gas bottles explode at some poor bugger’s home and seeing smoke all around me.”

Authorities said that by late afternoon the worst danger had passed.

DARKNESS IN THE AFTERNOON

Several hundreds of kilometers north, the Jervis Bay tourist spot famed for having the whitest sand beach in the world, was shrouded in darkness in the afternoon as massive fires burned, with conditions expected to worsen.

The blazes were also generating their own weather patterns, with erratic winds, dry lightning and a significantly faster spread in different direction, fire authorities said.

Ellie Morello took refuge at a beachside motel with her mother, some neighbors, friends at pets as fires approached Batemans Bay, a town on the New South Wales coast.

“My throat’s hurting from the smoke,” she told Reuters by telephone. “Burned leaves and sparks were falling on me like rain.”

Another small fire was closing in behind her as she spoke, she added.

“Helicopters are flying right overhead and dropping ocean waters a couple of hundred meters from where I am. But we have nowhere to go so we are still here.”

Morello and others said they had run out of food and were unable to replenish supplies as shops had shut.

James Findlay, a Melbourne-based broadcaster, said his parents’ home in the town was gutted after palm trees on the lawn caught fire. The couple were vacationing in New Zealand.

“There were a lot of family heirlooms in there,” he told Reuters. “A lot of priceless memories.”

The fires have been spread across four states, with fronts stretching hundreds of kilometers in some cases, affecting many towns and rural areas.

The two people who died overnight were believed to have been a father and son protecting their property near the town of Cobargo in New South Wales, police said, with a third missing, feared dead, while in Victoria, four more were unaccounted for.

Bushfires burned on the outskirts of Sydney, cloaking the harbor city in smoke ahead of a fireworks display planned for New Year’s Eve.

Authorities said the fireworks would go ahead, despite some public calls for cancellation in solidarity with fire-hit areas in the state.

“Many of us have mixed feelings about this evening, but the important thing we take out of this is that we’re a resilient state,” NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian told reporters.

(Reporting by Sonali Paul in Melbourne; additional reporting by Jonathan Barrett and Paulina Duran in Sydney; Writing by Jane Wardell; Editing by Gerry Doyle and Clarence Fernandez)

World welcomes new year amid wildfires and protests

By Swati Pandey, Jessie PANG and Twinnie Siu

SYDNEY/HONG KONG (Reuters) – The world rang in the new year on Wednesday with spectacular firework displays from Sydney to Tokyo, though celebrations in Australia were overshadowed by deadly wildfires and the festive mood in Hong Kong and India was dampened by protests.

Around a million revellers thronged Sydney harbour and nearby districts to watch more than 100,000 fireworks explode above the city, even as thousands of people along Australia’s eastern seaboard sought refuge from the bushfires on beaches.

Hong Kong cancelled its popular New Year’s Eve fireworks in Victoria Harbour due to security concerns as protesters formed giant human chains and marched through shopping malls, vowing to continue to fight for democracy in 2020.

Thousands of Indians also planned to greet the new year with protests, angered by a citizenship law that they say will discriminate against Muslims and chip away at India’s secular constitution.

Sydney decided to press ahead with its fireworks display despite calls by some members of the public for it to be cancelled in solidarity with fire-hit areas in New South Wales, of which the city is the capital.

Sydney mayor Clover Moore said planning had begun 15 months ago and that the event also gave a boost to the economy.

Some other towns in eastern Australia cancelled their new year celebrations as naval vessels and military helicopters helped firefighters to rescue people fleeing the fires, which have turned swathes of New South Wales into a raging furnace.

The fires have killed at least 11 people since October, two of them overnight into Tuesday, destroyed more than 4 million hectares (10 million acres) and left many towns and rural areas without electricity or mobile coverage.

Some tourists trapped in Australia’s coastal towns posted images of blood-red, smoke-filled skies on social media. One beachfront photograph showed people lying shoulder-to-shoulder on the sand, some wearing gas masks.

Elsewhere, revellers from Auckland in New Zealand to Pyongyang, capital of isolated North Korea, welcomed the new year with firework displays. In Japan, people took turns to strike Buddhist temple bells, in accordance with tradition.

NOT FIREWORKS BUT TEAR GAS

In Hong Kong, rocked by months of sometimes violent pro-democracy demonstrations, protesters were urged to wear masks at a New Year rally called “Don’t forget 2019 – Persist in 2020”, according to social media posts.

A “Symphony of Lights” was planned instead of the firework display, involving projections on the city’s tallest skyscrapers after a countdown to midnight.

“This year there are no fireworks, but there will probably be tear gas somewhere,” said 25-year-old IT worker Sam. “For us it’s not really New Year’s Eve. We have to resist every day.”

Some 6,000 police were deployed and Chief Executive Carrie Lam appealed for calm and reconciliation in her New Year’s Eve video message.

The protests began in June in response to a now-withdrawn bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, where courts are controlled by the Communist Party, and have evolved into a broader pro-democracy movement.

In India, protesters angry about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s new citizenship law planned demonstrations on Tuesday evening in the capital New Delhi, in the grip of its second coldest winter in more than a century, as well as the financial hub Mumbai and other cities.

(Reporting by bureaux in Sydney, Hong Kong and New Delhi; Writing by Gareth Jones; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Kevin Liffey)

California’s PG&E customers face new round of mass outages

By Steve Gorman

(Reuters) – Power supply to about 150,000 California homes and businesses is expected to be shut off on Wednesday, in the latest precautionary outage planned by utility giant PG&E against wildfire risks posed by extremely dry, windy weather.

Late on Tuesday, the company said it would go forward with the shutoffs from 9 a.m., with some customers likely to be unaffected until late afternoon.

The mass blackout will be the fourth imposed by Pacific Gas & Electric Co, a unit of PG&E Corp, since Oct. 9, when about 730,000 customers were left in the dark as a preventive measure called a “public safety power shutoff.”

A precautionary outage initiated on Oct. 23 hit an estimated 179,000 customers, while another run in phases from Oct. 26 through Nov. 1 affected a record 941,000 homes and workplaces, according to PG&E.

The latest mass shutoff is likely to run through midday Thursday and could ultimately affect 181,000 customers across portions of 16 counties in northern and central California, PG&E spokeswoman Katie Allen told Reuters.

The outages are a response to forecasts for humidity levels to drop and heavy desert winds to howl through the region, a scenario that strengthens the risk of wildfires ignited by downed power lines.

Wind gusts will reach between 35 mph and 55 miles (56 km to 89 km), with isolated areas of higher gusts, National Weather Service forecasters said.

PG&E, California’s largest investor-owned utility, filed for bankruptcy in January, citing $30 billion in civil liability from major fires sparked by its equipment in 2017 and 2018.

That tally includes the state’s deadliest fire on record, the Camp fire that killed 85 people in and around the northern town of Paradise last year.

The recent wave of precautionary shutoffs has provoked criticism from Governor Gavin Newsom, state regulators and consumer activists as being too broad.

Newsom blames PG&E for doing too little to properly maintain and secure its power lines against wind damage and has accused the utility of poorly managing some of the mass outages.

Utility executives have acknowledged room for improvement while defending the sprawling cutoffs as a matter of public safety.

The California Public Utilities Commission recently opened a formal investigation of whether PG&E and other utilities violated energy regulations by cutting power to millions of residents for days at a time during periods of high winds.

Even as northern California braced for heightened wildfire risks, parts of Southern California, including Los Angeles, were expected to be doused by their first substantial showers after months of little or no rainfall.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Culver City, Calif.; Additional reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall and Clarence Fernandez)

New front opens in Australian bushfires, power cut to thousands

By Colin Packham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Electricity firms cut off power to thousands of people, more than 100 schools were closed and residents in high risk regions sought shelter on Wednesday as Australia’s devastating bushfires opened up a new front.

Australia has been battling wildfires across several states for days, endangering thousands of people in many communities. Blazes so far this month have killed at least four people, burnt about 2.5 million acres (1 million hectares) of farmland and bush and destroyed more than 300 homes.

On Wednesday, a fresh battle line was drawn as 50 fires sprung up in South Australia state, where officials lifted the fire danger warning to “catastrophic” as temperatures passed 42 degrees Celsius (107.6 degrees Fahrenheit).

A catastrophic warning means that should a fire start, it will not be possible for firefighters to control it, given the weather conditions.

“From sunrise until well past midnight, this state is going to experience very difficult fire conditions,” Brenton Eden, assistant chief officer at the South Australian Country Fire Service, told Australian Broadcasting Corp radio.

More than 600 firefighters attended to incidents across the state on Wednesday, and most were expected to keep battling fires throughout the night.

As some of fires approached electricity transmission lines, provider SA Power Networks cut power to over 12,000 customers.

With strong winds stoking blazes, authorities put residents near four of the fires on high alert to flee in case the flames spread rapidly.

“This is the worst of the weather from a fire behaviour point that we will have seen,” Eden told reporters in Adelaide, the state capital.

Australia is prone to bushfires in its dry, hot summers, but the recent series of fierce blazes have been sparked early, in the southern spring, after a three-year drought that has left much of the country tinder-dry.

While the immediate threat was in the south on Wednesday, firefighters continued to battle about 100 fires that have been burning for several days across Australia’s east coast.

Sydney, the country’s most populous city with around 5 million residents, was covered with thick smoke for the second day running. Health officials on Tuesday warned people in the harbour city to stay inside as the smoke reached hazardous levels.

(Reporting by Colin Packham; editing by Jane Wardell and Gerry Doyle)

Devastating bushfire conditions to worsen in Australia

By Lidia Kelly

MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Rising temperatures, lightning strikes and erratic winds are set to fan wildfires in Australia in the week ahead, officials said on Sunday, with emergency crews already working day and night to contain more than 130 blazes.

The state of New South Wales, where 367 homes have been lost in the past week, reported 56 fires burning with about half yet to be contained, fire services said.

A heatwave forecast for this week is expected to heighten dangers in the state. The fires have already claimed four lives across the country’s east coast.

“We are expecting to see a worsening of conditions, particularly as we start heading into Tuesday and then continuing through Wednesday and Thursday again,” New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said.

Crews from interstate and New Zealand were expected to bolster firefighters’ efforts from Monday in combating the blazes and to relieve volunteers.

Australia’s bushfires are a common and deadly threat but the early outbreak this year in the southern spring has already claimed several lives and destroyed hundreds of homes.

Authorities in Queensland issued emergency warnings for part of the state, where nearly 80 fires were burning on Sunday and as the region braced for more hot and dry weather in the week ahead.

“Until we get significant rainfall, the fires will not go out,” Queensland’s acting Fire and Emergency Commissioner, Mike Wassing, said in televised remarks.

(Reporting by Lidia Kelly; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Sam Holmes)

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)

Easing winds give firefighters a break in California wildfire battle

Easing winds give firefighters a break in California wildfire battle
By Rollo Ross

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Fierce, dry Santa Ana winds off the Southern California mountains eased early on Friday, helping firefighters make progress in corralling major wildfires that have displaced thousands of residents.

A fresh spate of wildfires had roared to life on Thursday in hilly neighborhoods outside Los Angeles, destroying homes and forcing yet more evacuations before the Santa Ana winds lost their punch overnight.

The Maria Fire swelled to torch more than 8,000 acres (3,240 hectares) of Ventura County after igniting on Thursday evening, threatening some 1,800 homes and other structures, according to the county fire department. About 7,500 residents were ordered to find lodgings elsewhere for Halloween night, and dozens of schools were closed on Friday.

East of Los Angeles, the Hillside Fire scorched more than 200 acres (80 hectares) of the San Bernardino National Forest, burning residential areas in the north end of the city of San Bernardino, destroying at least six homes on Thursday, the county’s fire department said.

Crews managed to carve containment lines around 50% of the fire’s perimeter. No injuries were reported.

The dry Santa Ana winds that howl down from the mountains every autumn in Southern California were forecast to abate on Friday, although there could still be fire-fuelling gusts of 15 to 20 miles per hour (25 to 32 km per hour), the National Weather Service said.

A fire that erupted early on Monday near the famed Getty Center art museum in west Los Angeles threatened thousands of homes in some of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods but was largely suppressed, with containment listed at 40%.

Residents were allowed to return to most of the 10,000 homes that had been ordered evacuated. The museum emerged unscathed, but about a dozen dwellings were lost in the 745-acre (301-hectare) Getty fire and two firefighters were injured.

About 30 miles (50 km) to the northwest, a fire raged to the edge of the hilltop Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum in Ventura County’s Simi Valley on Wednesday, threatening thousands of homes, but was 60 percent contained early on Friday. Firefighters doused flames before they could reach the library.

Pacific Gas and Electric Co  acknowledged last week that the Kincade Fire, a blaze that charred 77,000 acres (31,160 hectares) of Sonoma County wine country north of San Francisco, started last week near a damaged PG&E transmission tower at about the time a high-voltage line on that tower malfunctioned.

That blaze has burned more than 77,700 acres and destroyed at least 349 homes and other structures but was listed as 65% contained on Thursday evening.

PG&E, which over this past weekend began shutting off power to 940,000 California customers to guard against the risk of an electrical mishap sparking a blaze, said late on Thursday it had restored electricity to virtually all customers.

(Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York, Alex Dobuzinskis in Culver City, California, and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Jonathan Oatis)

Homes destroyed, hundreds more evacuated as Los Angeles wildfires spread

Fire is seen in Simi Valley, California, U.S. October 30, 2019, in this social media image. Courtesy of Twitter @415FirePhoto/Social Media via REUTERS.

Homes destroyed, hundreds more evacuated as Los Angeles wildfires spread
By Omar Younis

SIMI VALLEY, Calif. (Reuters) – More wildfires ignited near Los Angeles on Thursday, destroying homes and forcing evacuations, as the region faced a second day of gusting desert winds that have fanned flames and displaced thousands of people.

The fast-moving Hillside Fire grew to 200 acres (80 hectares) and was starting to consume homes near scrub-covered slopes in San Bernadino, east of Los Angeles, according to the San Bernadino County Fire Department.

At least six homes were destroyed or damaged and about 1,300 people had been ordered to evacuate. A helicopter and a small plane dropped water and retardant on the flames, according to Chris Prater, a fire department spokesman. A smaller brush fire was also reported in Jurupa Valley.

“The winds have probably been the biggest factor promoting this fire spread,” he said.

The region’s Santa Ana winds have been so extraordinarily dry, powerful and prolonged that the National Weather Service created a new alert level, issuing an “extreme red flag warning” through Thursday evening in Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

Two other major fires have charred the region since the start of the week.

The Getty Fire broke out near the Getty Center art museum in Los Angeles on Monday morning, burning chaparral up and down the mountain slopes around a major highway.

Officials ordered the evacuation of more than 10,000 homes in some of the city’s richest neighborhoods, although they began allowing some people to return on Wednesday as about 40% of the 745-acre (300-hectare) fire was brought under control.

The Easy Fire ignited early on Wednesday, sending flames racing up to the walls of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library atop a mountain in Ventura County’s Simi Valley northwest of Los Angeles. Some 30,000 residents were ordered to evacuate, along with an unknown number of horses in an area that is known for its ranches. County schools remained closed on Thursday.

Officials at the Getty Center and the Reagan Library were confident both complexes would be unscathed, thanks to various fire-prevention systems. These include, in the case of the Reagan Library, an annual visit by a herd of goats that eats away the surrounding flammable scrub. On Wednesday, helicopters doused the area around the library with water.

No injuries have been reported in the fires, although at least a dozen homes in Los Angeles have burned down.

The Santa Ana winds arrive in the autumn, sending hot, dry air down from the mountains out to the Southern California coast. Gusts of 65 miles per hour (105 kilometers per hour) were recorded in mountainous areas around Los Angeles, and more powerful winds were forecast for Thursday morning.

Tens of thousands of people in the region were without power after a precautionary shutdown by the Pacific Gas & Electric Co <PCG.N>.

Investigators say the Getty fire was likely caused by a broken tree branch that was blown into power lines during high winds on Monday morning.

NORTHERN CALIFORNIA FIRE

In northern California, firefighters have been fighting the 76,000-acre (30,760-hectare) Kincade Fire in Sonoma County’s wine country for more than a week. That blaze has destroyed at least 189 homes and other structures but was listed as 30% contained on Wednesday.

PG&E acknowledged last week that the Kincade Fire started near a damaged transmission tower at about the time a live high-voltage line on 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.

As many as 190,000 people were displaced at the height of the Kincade Fire, but some evacuation orders have since been lifted.

(Reporting by Omar Younis in Simi Valley, California, and Jonathan Allen in New York; Writing by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Scott Malone, Bernadette Baum and Frances Kerry)