California wildfires intensify amid hurricane-force winds, forcing evacuations, power shutoffs

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Firefighters battle the Kincade Fire as a barn burns on October 27, 2019 in Santa Rosa, California.
Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

California’s governor declared a statewide emergency on Sunday as wildfires fueled by high winds continue to ravage parts of the state and millions are left without power because of planned power shutoffs.

The California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection, or CalFire, reported 162,693 acres burned, 405 structures damaged or destroyed, and three fatalities as of Sunday.

The Kincade Fire in Sonoma County, the largest of the fires burning in the state, has spread to more than 54,000 acres. Only 5% of this fire has been contained. Early Sunday, the Kincade Fire had only spread to 30,000 acres, with 10% considered contained. 

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A firefighter gives orders as he battles the wind-driven Kincade Fire in Windsor, California,
October 27, 2019. Stephen Lam | Reuters

High winds are to blame for the continued growth of the Kincade Fire, which has essentially doubled in size. The National Weather Service warned that an extreme and potentially historic offshore wind event was expected in mountain regions of Northern and Central California through Monday morning. Wind speeds reached Category 1 hurricane-level speeds, with gusts that topped 100 mph, according to NBC News.

A Red Flag warning will continue through Monday morning, with wind gusts of 40 to 50 mph still a possibility, according to a Kincade fire incident update released at 7 p.m. Sunday. About 180,000 people have been ordered to evacuate in that area.

Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office said on Twitter that it was the largest evacuation that “any of us at the Sheriff’s Office can remember.”

“We are deploying every resource available, and are coordinating with numerous agencies as we continue to respond to these fires,” Gov. Gavin Newsom of California said in a statement. “It is critical that people in evacuation zones heed the warnings from officials and first responders, and have the local and state resources they need as we fight these fires.”

For the Kincade Fire alone, 352 engines, 28 water tenders, 10 helicopters, 76 hand crews, 51 bulldozers, and 3,441 total personnel have been assigned to contain the fire, according to the incident update.

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A firefighter pulls a hose to spray water on a burning tree as he battles the Kincade Fire on
October 27, 2019 in Windsor, California. Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

Pacific Gas and Electric has shut off power for 940,000 homes and businesses in Northern California to prevent more wildfires, leaving as many as 2.7 million people without electricity. This could be the state’s largest planned blackout in history.

Hundreds of miles south of the Kincade Fire, in Los Angeles County, the Tick Fire has spread across 4,615 acres, 70% of which was contained as of Sunday evening, according to the Tick Fire incident update. The update reported 10,000 threatened residences. The Tick Fire, which started on Thursday, forced about 50,000 people to evacuate. As of Sunday evening, all evacuation orders had been lifted. A Red Flag warning remains in effect through Monday afternoon and 509 firefighters remain on-scene with additional resources.

Shares of PG&E plunged to $5 on Friday, a 30% decline that could hamper the company’s attempt to make its way out of bankruptcy protection. The stock decline followed reporting that PG&E’s transmission lines were active in the area where the Sonoma County fire sparked. The company’s stock has plummeted by nearly 90% over the past 12 months

PG&E’s equipment has sparked 19 major fires in 2017 and 2018, and the company was blamed for last year’s Camp Fire that destroyed the town of Paradise and killed 86 people.

PG&E said that customers can now expect rolling power outages for another 10 years as it upgrades its electrical systems in response to more extreme weather conditions in California.

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