Two thousand Northern California residents remain under evacuation orders Friday as firefighters battle the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County.
The blaze had scorched 23,700 acres as of Friday evening and destroyed at least 49 buildings, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, also known as Cal Fire.
Among the evacuees was Healdsburg resident Jason Montgomery, who sought refuge at a shelter. On Thursday night, he said, he could see the fire from his bedroom.
“People are bugging out because this happened two years ago and it was a pretty traumatic experience for everybody,” he said, a referring to Tubbs Fire, which destroyed more than 5,600 structures in Sonoma County after breaking out in October 2017.
He wore a T-shirt that read, “Rest in Paradise,” an homage to the California town destroyed last year by another wildfire, the Camp Fire. Montgomery said his father lost his home in that blaze, and he’s learned to accept they might be inevitable.
“If it happens, it happens,” he told CNN Friday morning. “My worrying about it won’t prevent it.
“The devastating part is when everybody leaves. I’ve seen communities gone. I’ve seen families lose everything. It’s life.”
Friday evening, the blaze remained one of nine active fires burning in the state, according to Cal Fire. Among the others was the Tick Fire north of Los Angeles, which had burned 4,300 acres and was 5% contained.
Electrical equipment malfunctioned before fire ignited, utility says
In an incident report filed with state regulators Thursday, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) said that just before the fire started Wednesday night, one of PG&E’s high-voltage transmission lines went out.
PG&E intentionally had shut off power in the area Wednesday to prevent equipment from sparking wildfires during dangerous weather conditions. That transmission line was not supposed to be “de-energized” because it was not part of the public safety power shutoff, according to the company.
PG&E said it became aware of the outage at 9:20 p.m., and state fire officials said the blaze started around seven minutes later.
The next morning, a PG&E field worker arrived at the transmission tower and found the area was taped off by Cal Fire personnel, PG&E said in the incident report. Cal Fire officials pointed out “what appeared to be a broken jumper” on the tower, the report said, adding that this information was “preliminary.”
Bill Johnson, the utility’s CEO, said it’s too soon to tell what caused the fire or where it started. An investigation is underway.
“Cal Fire, the experts in this, will draw that ultimate conclusion,” he said at a news conference Thursday night. “We still, at this point, do not know exactly what happened. Something happened and it de-energized itself.”
Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday expressed his frustration, once again, toward PG&E while visiting Sonoma County.
“They simply did not do their job,” Newsom said as he talked about the need to restructure the utility company.
“We will hold them accountable,” Newsom said. “This is not the new normal, this cannot continue,” he added.
Newsom said $26 million in state money would be available for counties impacted by the power shutoffs. He declared states of emergency in Sonoma and Los Angeles counties.
Fires fueled by strong winds
The Kincade Fire prompted massive evacuations and destroyed 49 structures by Thursday, commercial and residential, fire officials said. Among the areas still under evacuation orders was all of Geyserville, north of San Francisco.
Firefighters are facing difficult conditions, Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean told CNN affiliate KPIX.
“The wind is definitely pushing the fire,” he said Thursday. “The area has a lot of brush and indefensible terrain. It’s hard to fight … It’s dark right now so we don’t have any eyes in the sky …They (the firefighters) definitely have a fight on their hands.”
When PG&E intentionally cut power to about 179,000 customers, it was the second time this month the utility shut off power to hundreds of thousands of Californians.
In recent years, PG&E has been criticized for the role its equipment played in a series of catastrophic blazes, including last year’s deadly Camp Fire.
And the winds will get worse
Forecast models show an offshore wind event that will begin Saturday could bring peak wind gusts of up to 60-to-85 miles per hour and “bone dry” humidity, creating extreme weekend fire conditions, PG&E chief meteorologist Scott Strenfel said.
“This is a serious situation that is in front of us,” he told reporters.
The strong wind event could “possibly (be) the strongest fire weather in the last several years,” he said.
PG&E plans to shut off power, potentially to 850,000 customers, beginning Saturday afternoon at 3, Vice President Sumeet Singh said.