California’s governor declared a statewide emergency on Sunday as thousands were ordered to evacuate and more than 2m were without electricity after utilities shut off power in the face of raging wildfires.
“We’re deploying every resource available as we continue to respond to these fires and unprecedented high-winds,” Governor Gavin Newsom tweeted.
The largest of six wild fires in northern California, in the wine country of Sonoma County 44m north of San Francisco, began on Wednesday evening and now covers 30,000 acres. It was only 10 per cent contained as of early Sunday morning.
High winds and low humidity had created “critical fire weather conditions,” according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
The Sonoma County’s Sheriff Office said that 180,000 people were under evacuation order. “This is the largest evacuation that any of us at the Sheriff’s Office can remember,” it said in a tweet. “Take care of each other.”
On Saturday, the bankrupt utility Pacific Gas and Electric, which supplies electricity and natural gas to most of northern California, said up to 940,000 customers may have their power shut off across 36 counties — affecting an estimated 2.8m people.
PG&E has cut off power to avoid falling wires from igniting fires owing to 80 mile per hour winds. The shut-off is said to be the largest deliberate power outage in California’s history.
The Sheriff’s Office has a “prolonged outage” could reduce its ability to issue further warnings and ordered all residents to “prepare to evacuate”. It listed the severity as “Severe — Significant threat to life or property”.
At 3:46am, Sonoma County Emergency expanded its mandatory evacuation area and urged residents to “please evacuate immediately”.
Cal Fire said its Red Flag warning, its highest alert, is likely to stay in effect “until late Thursday evening and even into Friday for some areas” in most of northern California and portions of the south.
No deaths have been reported but 79 residential or commercial structures had been destroyed and another 14 were damaged. Tens of thousands are threatened.
“The north side of the fire is burning in remote, steep terrain while southern portions of the fire have begun to impact the Southern Alexander Valley,” Cal Fire said. “Firefighters will continue to mitigate structure threats and find opportunities construct control lines.”
Jonathan Cox, who oversees fire operations at the San Mateo County Division of Cal Fire, said the fires were moving into more populated spots in the county.
“Firefighters made aggressive attacks on the fire, defending structures as well as contending with downed trees and downed power lines,” he said.
Steve Volmer, a fire behaviour analyst at Cal Fire, called the fire “extremely dangerous.” He said analysts know where it is heading but warned that the spread of the fire could become “very problematic”.
For instance, if the fire crosses to the west side of 101 highway, he said, “that area hasn’t seen any fire history since the 1940s, so the fuels in that area are extremely dense. They’re extremely old and decadent, they’re extremely dry”.
In Marin County, north of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Sheriff’s Office warned residents on Saturday that the duration of the outage was “unknown” and it urged residents they “should be prepared to be without power for up to 5 days”.
The Sheriff’s Office also recommended residents identify evacuation routes, take stock of non-perishable foods, have petrol filled in their cars and be prepared to leave quickly.