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California governor declares state of emergency as wildfires force thousands to evacuate

Posted at 4:51 PM, Oct 27, 2019

Whipping winds and dangerously dry conditions fueled the growth of wildfires in northern and southern California on Sunday, forcing thousands of people to flee their homes and causing Gov. Gavin Newsom to declare a statewide emergency.

"We are deploying every resource available, and are coordinating with numerous agencies as we continue to respond to these fires," Newsom said in a statement.

He issued a proclamation saying the "fire weather conditions are unprecedented due to the scale, scope, wind speed and dry fuel conditions."

In northern California's wine country, the Kincade Fire has already destroyed 79 structures and now threatens 31,175 other homes and buildings, said the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).

That fire grew so quickly authorities increased evacuation orders to cover 180,000 people in Sonoma County, the sheriff's office said. Two hospitals evacuated patients in Santa Rosa, the Sonoma County seat devastated by fire two years ago .

"This is the largest evacuation that any of us at the Sheriff's Office can remember," the department tweeted. "Take care of each other."

The fire ravaged Soda Rock Winery , a Sonoma County landmark since 1869.

Two vegetation fires broke out in the city of Vallejo in the San Francisco Bay area Sunday morning, shutting down Interstate 80 and all traffic on the Carquinez Bridge, according to the California Highway Patrol.

In San Francisco proper, winds blew with such force that authorities advised motorists not to drive campers and trailers across the San Francisco Bridge.

22 structures destroyed in Southern California

Down in the Los Angeles area, "critical fire weather conditions are in place across Southern California today as winds ramp up across the region this evening," CNN meteorologist Haley Brink said.

The Tick Fire, burning near Santa Clarita, had destroyed at least 22 structures and was threatening 10,000 more, the Los Angeles County Fire Department said Sunday.

Ferocious winds, with gusts up to 80 mph, mixed with dry vegetation and critically low humidity of less than 10% have spawned the extreme fire threat, Brink said.

Several areas are under red flag warnings, which are issued when a weather event could lead to "extreme fire behavior that will occur within 24 hours," Cal Fire said.

That brings the possibility for "very rapid fire spread and extreme fire behavior with any new ignitions Sunday night into Monday," the National Weather Service in Los Angeles said.

"A second, potentially stronger Santa Ana wind event is forecast to occur Wednesday into Thursday, with winds gusting to 70 mph," Brink said.

More than 1 million people in the dark

In an effort to avert any more wildfires, Pacific Gas & Electric has shut off power to 960,000 customers, PG&E said Sunday.

But the number of people without power is higher, since electric customers include houses and businesses.

Residents in parts of 38 counties in the Northern and Southern Sierra Foothills, the North Bay and Mendocino, the Bay Area, the Central Coast and the Central Valley are part of the rolling blackouts, the company said.

PG&E announced the current shutoff last week. The company has made preventive shutoffs all over northern and central California in recent weeks, but this one could be the largest.

"This (public safety power shutoff) action is based on forecasts of historic dry, hot and windy weather that poses a significant risk for damage and sparks on the electric system and rapid wildfire spread," PG&E said .

Paradise , the town devastated by last year's deadly Camp Fire , is among the areas scheduled to lose power.

San Jose City Manager Kip Harkness said the city has a plan in place for the outage, which could affect about 90,000 in the area . Officials said the city has activated a "power vulnerability plan" that has been months in the works.

Californians tired of losing electricity might have to get used to it.

Earlier this year, the company warned it could proactively cut power more often during risky weather conditions as a means of preventing wildfires caused by high winds downing live power equipment.

The preventive power outages may continue for a decade, PG&E's chief executive said earlier this month.

PG&E has came under widespread criticism and agreed to pay billions for its role in the 2018 Camp Fire, California's deadliest and most destructive blaze.

A Cal Fire investigation found the company responsible for the fire. PG&E acknowledged it's "probable" that its equipment started the fire .

Helping evacuees

More than 700 hosts in Northern California have opened up their homes and rental properties via Airbnb to evacuees leaving their homes due to the Kincade Fire, according to Airbnb.

Hosts in the region are opening their homes for free until November 7 to displaced residents and relief workers deployed to help.