By Agence France-Presse and Reuters
LOS ANGELES – California officials warned on Saturday that ”historic and extreme” wind conditions were set to fan raging wildfires across the north of the state as millions of residents face power cuts.
Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency as the Kincade Fire spread to 25,455 acres (10,300 hectares) after breaking out on Wednesday in the Sonoma wine region.
The blaze, which is burning in remote steep terrain, threatens 23,500 structures and has forced the evacuation of the small community of Geyserville and nearby vineyard operations.
”This is definitely an event that we’re calling historic and extreme,” David King, meteorologist for the US National Weather Service, told The Los Angeles Times.
”What’s making this event really substantial… is the amount of time that these winds are going to remain.”
Hot, intense winds are forecast to pick up on Saturday and last into Monday across the San Francisco Bay region, which has been put on a red-flag warning indicating dangerous risk of wildfires.
California’s largest utility, Pacific Gas & Electric Co., said it expected to cut off power to 850,000 customers — a precautionary shutdown that local media reported would affect about two million people.
California firefighters raced against time on Saturday as they cut defensive lines against a wildfire in Sonoma County’s famed wine country and authorities ordered 50,000 people to evacuate, ahead of winds that are forecast to pick up at night and spread the flames.
The expanded evacuation orders came as the utility Pacific Gas and Electric Corp prepared to shut off power to about 940,000 customers in 36 of the state’s counties to guard against the risk that an electric mishap could spark a blaze.
The move to cut power to so many people quickly drew a rebuke from California Governor Gavin Newsom, who called it “unacceptable” in a video message on Twitter. The Democratic governor has blamed the bankrupt utility for lackluster investment in its infrastructure that he says makes its protective blackouts larger than they need to be.
Among the areas where power was shut off were parts of Sonoma County charred by the 25,000-acre (10,000-hectare) Kincade Fire.
The blaze burning along steep hillsides in rugged terrain north of San Francisco was one of two major wildfires burning in California, with the other, the Tick Fire, raging in suburban Los Angeles where it has charred 4,600 acres (1,700 hectares) with hundreds of residents still under evacuation orders on Saturday.
The more than 2,000 firefighters battling the Kincade Fire, which officials said was 10% contained and has destroyed nearly 50 structures, faced a more immediate threat from weather than crews battling the Tick Fire.
Winds around the Kincade Fire were expected to reach peak intensity on Saturday night into early Sunday, with sustained speeds of up to 40 miles per hour (90 kph) and gusts of 80 mph (130 kph) in mountains and canyons, said Ryan Walburn, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
The winds will likely push flames toward the southwest, Walburn said, which would bring it closer to the 101 Freeway and put the towns of Windsor and Healdsburg at risk.
Authorities on Saturday ordered all the residents of those two towns to leave, with more than 50,000 people in Sonoma County told to evacuate.
The cause of the Kincade Fire is still under investigation, but officials have said it erupted on Wednesday near the base of a damaged high-voltage transmission tower owned by PG&E.