Fast-moving fires near Los Angeles force more than 40,000 to flee

Fast-moving fires near Los Angeles force more than 40,000 to flee
By Stephen Lam

GEYSERVILLE, Calif. (Reuters) – California firefighters on Friday sought to take advantage of a brief lull in high winds behind fast-moving wildfires that forced the evacuation of more than 40,000 residents north of Los Angeles and another 2,000 in the state’s wine country.

With winds abating, crews worked overnight to battle a newly-started fire about 40 miles (64 km) north of Los Angeles that was threatening 10,000 homes and businesses, the Los Angeles County Fire Department said.

Officials warned residents not to be deceived by the overnight lull, as the National Weather Service (NWS) forecast a pickup in hot, dry winds by Friday morning with gusts of 45 to 55 mph (72 to 89 kph) and temperatures above 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius).

“Let’s not let our guard down,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger. She told a press conference 40,000 to 50,000 residents had been forced from homes by late Thursday with “numerous” structures destroyed.

California’s wildfires generally erupt in the fall as hot, dry Santa Ana winds blow westward from the desert after a dry summer. Last year, at least 85 people died in one of the deadliest such fires, known as the Camp Fire in Butte County.

The so-called Tick Fire, which began Thursday afternoon just outside the city of Santa Clarita, had consumed about 4,000 acres and was only 5 percent contained as of late Thursday, the county fire department said.

Another burst of high winds was expected over the weekend, said Marc Chenard, a meteorologist with the NWS’s Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland.

To the north, where firefighters were battling a smattering of blazes, crews had restored power to most of the nearly 200,000 homes and businesses intentionally left in the dark because of risk of high winds downing electrical lines.

DAMAGED ELECTRICITY TOWER

Power had been shut off to residents from the Sierra Foothills to the North Bay and San Mateo and Kern counties.

But by early Friday, Pacific Gas and Electric Co (PG&E) said it restored power to most of its 178,000 customers in portions of 18 counties shut off, and it expected to have the rest reconnected by the end of the day.

While the cause of the worst of the blazes, the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County, has not been determined, it appears to have erupted near the base of a damaged high-voltage transmission tower owned by PG&E.

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

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, which has destroyed about a dozen homes and other structures.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) said it is investigating. It listed the same place and time of origin for the fire as the tower incident reported by PG&E.

By early Friday, the Kincade fire had scorched about 16,000 acres and forced some 2,000 people to flee their homes, Cal Fire said.

No injuries have been reported and only 800 acres had been contained, it said.

Mandatory evacuations began with the 900 residents of historic Geyserville on Thursday, and continued climbing to 2,000 across Sonoma County through the day, the county sheriff’s office said.

Geyserville and nearby Healdsburg, part of which was under an evacuation warning, are hubs of upscale restaurants, wine-tasting rooms, inns and shops surrounded by hills dotted with vineyards about 75 miles (120 km) north of San Francisco.

(Reporting by Stephen Lam in Geyserville; Additional reporting by Peter Szekely in New York, Subrat Patnaik in Bengaluru and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Scott Malone and Andrew Cawthorne)

At least 10 killed by wildfires in California wine country

A DC-10 aircraft drops fire retardant on a wind driven wildfire in Orange, California, U.S., October 9, 2017.

By Marc Vartabedian

SANTA ROSA, Calif. (Reuters) – A spate of wildfires fanned by strong winds swept through northern California’s wine country on Monday, leaving at least 10 people dead, destroying hundreds of homes and businesses and chasing some 20,000 people from their dwellings.

The deaths marked the first wildfire-related fatalities in California this year, according to state officials, and are believed to represent the largest loss of life from a single incident or cluster blazes in the state in about a decade.

Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for Napa, Sonoma and Yuba counties, encompassing some of the state’s prime wine-making areas, as the blazes raged unchecked and engulfed the region in thick, billowing smoke that drifted south into the San Francisco Bay area.

He later extended the declaration to include four more northern California counties and Orange County in Southern California.

An aerial photo of the devastation left behind from the North Bay wildfires north of San Francisco, California, October 9, 2017. California Highway

An aerial photo of the devastation left behind from the North Bay wildfires north of San Francisco, California, October 9, 2017. California Highway Patrol/Golden Gate Division/Handout via REUTERS

Sonoma County bore the brunt of the fatalities, with seven fire-related deaths confirmed there, according to the sheriff’s department. Two others died in Napa County and one more in Mendocino County, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire).

Details on the circumstances of those deaths were not immediately available from either CalFire or local officials. But KGO-TV in San Francisco, citing unnamed California Highway Patrol officials, described one of the victims as a blind, elderly woman found dead in the driveway of her home in Santa Rosa, a town in Sonoma County.

Two hospitals were forced to evacuate in Sonoma County, state officials said.

Thousands of firefighters battled wind gusts in excess of 50 miles per hour (80 km/h) that have rapidly spread 15 separate wildfires across some 73,000 acres in northern California since erupting late Sunday night, according to CalFire spokesman Daniel Berlant.

About 1,500 homes and commercial buildings have been destroyed throughout the region, Ken Pimlott, director of CalFire, said at a news conference.

A separate wildfire on Monday torched at least a half-dozen homes in the affluent Anaheim Hills neighborhood of Southern California’s Orange County, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of residents there, authorities said.

Firefighters work to put out hot spots on a fast moving wind driven wildfire in Orange, California, U.S., October 9, 2017.

Firefighters work to put out hot spots on a fast moving wind driven wildfire in Orange, California, U.S., October 9, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake

That blaze erupted along a freeway off-ramp and spread quickly in gusty winds to scorch at least 4,000 acres (1,600 hectares) in a matter of hours, fire officials said.

Still, the fire in Orange County paled in comparison to one of the fiercer blazes in northern California, the so-called Tubbs fire, which by mid morning had scorched about 25,000 acres (10,117 hectares) in Napa and Sonoma counties, an area world-famous for its vineyards.

One evacuee, John Van Dyke, recalled standing in his pajamas near the 101 Freeway in Santa Rosa, watching a hillside in flames from the Tubbs Fire, when police pounded on his door in the mobile home park early on Monday, telling him to flee.

“When I got in the car to leave, a whole section of the mobile park was in flames,” he said. “It scared the hell out of me.” At least 5,000 people were under mandatory evacuation orders in Santa Rosa alone, accounting for about a quarter of the region’s residents displaced by the fires.

San Francisco authorities issued an air quality alert due to smoke from the fires, which residents said they could smell since early in the morning.

“You can’t see anything, the smoke is very dense,” Fred Oliai, 47, owner of the Alta Napa Valley Winery, told Reuters by telephone. He said he has not been able to get close enough to his vineyards since he was evacuated to see if flames reached his 90-acre property.

In addition to potential damage to vineyards from fire itself, experts say sustained exposure to heavy smoke can taint unharvested grapes, and Oliai said wine makers in the area are nervous.

“We got our grapes in last week, but others still have grapes hanging,” he said.

The region threatened by fires overlaps an area accounting for roughly 12 percent of California’s overall wine production by volume but also where its most highly valued grapes are grown, said Anita Oberholster, a professor of viticulture and enology at the University of California at Davis.

So far this year, some 7,700 wildfires in California have burned about 780,000 acres statewide as of Sunday, CalFire spokesman Daniel Berlant said.

About a dozen people lost their lives in a series of fires that swept San Diego County and other parts of Southern California in October 2007. Ten people perished the following August in the Iron Alps Fire Complex in northern California’s Trinity County, including nine killed in a helicopter crash.

 

(Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles, Keith Coffman in Denver and Gina Cherelus and Joseph Ax in New York; Writing Alex Dobuzinskis and Steve Gorman; Editing by Tom Brown and Diane Craft)