Culley lost his home to the 2017 Tubbs Fire, one of the state’s deadliest wildfires on record. Now another blaze was bearing down on the region, and Culley feared he would lose everything. Again.
Parts of Northern California faced the prospect of new infernos and power outages affecting more than 2 million people as a potentially historic wind event was forecast to sweep into the state on Saturday, almost a year after the most destructive fire in California history left 85 people dead. Culley’s anxiety is part of a grim new reality for a state hit by increasingly dangerous fire seasons and turning to drastic new prevention measures.
The Kincade Fire, sparked Wednesday night in Sonoma County and still only 10 percent contained, is expected to worsen as strong winds with low humidity create what the National Weather Service called “extreme fire weather.” Nearly 3,000 responders are fighting a blaze that has consumed about 26,000 acres and destroyed 77 structures, including 31 homes, officials said Saturday evening.
“I’ve seen what a firestorm is, it’s catastrophic,” said Culley, the owner of KC’s American Kitchen, his voice shaking. “To know that a monster could be coming this way is really, really disturbing.”
By Saturday evening, mandatory evacuations stretched from the area of the fire to the Pacific coast and affected 83,000 people, including about 39,000 in places where orders were just issued, officials say. Power outages may complicate the latest efforts to get people out of harm’s way, they cautioned.
Throughout the day, authorities urged residents to heed the evacuations. Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick shared his dismay over reports of people intending to stay home and wait the fire out — a dangerous and “selfish act,” he said, because it puts emergency responders in jeopardy, too.
Evacuees could find shelter at the Santa Rosa veterans memorial hall, the Petaluma veterans hall, the Petaluma Community Center and the Petaluma and Sonoma County fairgrounds, authorities said.
The National Weather Service warned of 60- to 80-mph gusts through the mountain regions of Northern and Central California between Saturday night and Monday morning, with lesser, but still powerful, winds reaching valleys and coastal areas.
“It’s going to be an aggressive fire fight,” said Edwin Duniga, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “All our firefighters have been told to keep an eye out, to be smart out there, be safe. Because terrain like this makes it hard for firefighters, and [makes it] super dangerous as the winds pick up.”
California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said proactive measures have helped prevent a blaze as bad as in previous years, even as six major wildfires rage around the state. This year’s state budget includes an additional $1 billion toward emergency preparation, and authorities are increasingly deploying resources to high-risk areas before a fire breaks out, he said.
But the weather has officials fearful of another catastrophe.
“The next 72 hours are going to be challenging,” Newsom said Saturday afternoon. “I could sugarcoat it, but I’m not.”
The wildfires come on the heels of the 2017 and 2018 California fire seasons, which featured the largest, most destructive and deadliest blazes in state history. It’s part of a clear pattern toward fires that are larger, more frequent and that stretch across a longer season. And, according to CalFire, “climate change is considered a key driver of this trend.” Population growth and the increase in homes and businesses located near lands that typically burn are also escalating the risk of and damage from wildfires in the Golden State.
Forecasters at the Weather Service say this wind event could bring the most explosive wildfire conditions since the 2017 wine country fires, which damaged much of the city of Santa Rosa and killed 22 people.
The forecasts led Pacific Gas & Electric to begin a massive power shutdown Saturday evening in an effort to avoid sparking a fire. About 940,000 customers, comprising about 2.8 million people across Northern California and in Central California’s Kern County, are expected to be without power through the weekend. The outages began at about 5 p.m. in some areas and continued to kick in throughout the night, according to the utility.
PG&E expects to begin “restoration activities” on Sunday and Monday. But it could take up to 48 hours for everyone to get their power back, company officials said, because staff have to inspect thousands of miles of infrastructure once the weather is clear.
Saturday’s outage marked PG&E’s second major shut-off spurred by fire fears this month. Power cuts from the gas and electric company about two weeks ago left nearly 2 million people without power in an unprecedented disruption. .
It’s also unlikely to be the last, PG&E officials warned. More worrisome weather could hit next week.
“As your power comes back on, please use that time to prepare again,” said company president Andy Vesey.
Earlier on Saturday, about 850 customers in Sonoma County lost power because of the fire, or because of precautionary shut-offs, PG&E spokeswoman Suzanne Hosn said.
Hundreds of miles south, the winds had changed more favorably for firefighters in Los Angeles County, where significant progress was made in halting the Tick Fire. Since Thursday, the blaze had consumed more than 4,600 acres and prompted as many as 50,000 people to evacuate after strong seasonal winds caused flames to race through the densely populated canyon region. Nine homes were destroyed.
A public works employee stumbled upon human remains in a burned area of Santa Clarita, said Los Angeles County sheriff spokeswoman Morgan Arteaga. But authorities are still investigating whether the unidentified individual’s death is related to the fire.
Karianna Bolstead was at her brother’s home near Santa Clarita on Thursday evening when she saw flames burning through the chaparral of yards several feet away. She covered her mouth, ran down the hill back to her brother’s home and yelled for him and his wife to leave. She fled in her own pickup truck, and spent a sleepless night pulled over on the side of the road after her cellphone died and she couldn’t navigate through the thick, blinding smoke.
“I’ve been here since the ‘50s — I’ve seen a lot of fires,” Bolstead said. “This is the most volatile and explosive and fast-moving one I’d ever seen.”
The fire was 25 percent contained as of Saturday morning, and emergency crews were focused on mitigating the hot spots leftover from the line of flames and preventing embers from igniting new fires, said Capt. A.J. Lester of the Los Angeles County Fire Department.
By Saturday morning, an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 had been able to return to their homes, Lester said. Areas within the fire’s perimeter remained under evacuation orders, and more than 1,300 firefighters remained on the scene. Two evacuation centers for fleeing residents had been established at nearby schools, as well as a separate location for animals.
“Red Flag” conditions with heightened fire risk — including winds of 45 to 55 mph — will probably return Sunday night and Monday in the area of the Tick Fire, the National Weather Service in Los Angeles said.
Los Angeles County, as well as Sonoma County, have been under a state of emergency since Friday.
As Northern California prepares for a new onslaught from the Kincade Fire, PG&E is facing extreme scrutiny after reporting that its earlier power cuts left stretches of high-voltage power transmission lines active in the region where the Sonoma County fire broke out. The same type of transmission line was responsible for the especially devastating Camp Fire in 2018.
The company’s shares plunged to $5 on Friday, a 30 percent decrease, MarketWatch reported. Such a tumble could hinder PG&E’s attempt to make its way out of bankruptcy. The utility filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in January because of liabilities in previous fires.
At a Friday afternoon news conference, Newsom said there have been discussions about PG&E’s culpability, but they were not “conclusive.” The blame for the fire “is neither determined nor is that investigation complete,” he said, adding that he plans to hold the company accountable for “years and years of mismanagement.”
PG&E chief executive Bill Johnson said the company is conducting an internal investigation but has not accepted responsibility for the fire, adding that officials don’t know precisely how it started. “We still, at this point, do not know what exactly happened,” he said at a Thursday news conference.
The scene in California as wildfires spread in historic windstorm
South of Sonoma County’s mandatory evacuation zones, residents scarred by the memory of the 2017 fires kept a wary eye on forecasts and made sure their backup generators were charged.
“We’re all kind of on high alert and everybody has PTSD from the last fire,” said Brent Bessire, an owner of Fogline Vineyards in Fulton, Calif. “This time you have a warning, people are getting more prepared.”
On Saturday, he and his family were clearing the brush around their facility to mitigate any possible fuel. The winery was closed, and they’d been packing and trying to figure out what to do with their numerous animals, which included dogs, llamas and rabbits.
Bessire watched the glow of the Kincade Fire from over a mountain ridge earlier this week, and the smoke had been wafting their way. On Saturday, he kept an eye to the north, waiting for the winds to start.
“It’s very disconcerting, to say the least,” he said.
Michael Brice-Saddler contributed to this report. Rob Kuznia contributed from California.