The New York Times

California Fires Update: Thousands Evacuated; Governor Declares State of Emergency

The New York Times - logo The New York Times 26/10/2019 4:42:00 Tim Arango and Thomas Fuller

a tree on a dirt road: The remains of a burned structure after the Kincade Fire.

The remains of a burned structure after the Kincade Fire.
© Max Whittaker for The New York Times

SANTA CLARITA, Calif. - A fire that forced the evacuation of 50,000 people spread through canyons north of Los Angeles on Friday, jumping a freeway and threatening thousands of homes.

Like the Kincade Fire, a blaze raging through the forests and vineyards of Northern California, the Tick Fire in Santa Clarita was driven by strong autumn winds.

The authorities ordered all public schools in the Santa Clarita and San Fernando Valleys to be closed on Friday, and the closing of a major freeway snarled rush-hour traffic.

Related slideshow: In Photos - California wildfires (Provided by Photo Services)

Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in Los Angeles and Sonoma Counties.

At a news briefing Friday morning, the authorities said the Tick Fire had burned 4,300 acres and was 5 percent contained. They said they had determined that six structures had burned so far.

"However, we know that it's going to rise today," said Chief Daryl L. Osby, of the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

He said that there were actually no active fires at the moment, but that the ground was smoldering and the winds were whipping - they are dealing with "significant and erratic winds." The worry is that new fires could ignite at any moment.

"At any moment an ember could get out of our containment line," he said.

Still, he said the authorities would consider repopulating certain areas by Friday afternoon. Aircraft have been used to fight the Tick Fire, and 600 firefighters have been deployed, he said.

Chief Osby said he was pleased to see so many residents heed the evacuation orders, saying many did so because of memories of last season's deadly fires. But he said he was concerned that some chose to ignore the orders, and were staying in their homes within the evacuation zones.

Dangerous winds are forecast to continue on Friday in the Los Angeles area, challenging the hundreds of firefighters deployed to contain the Tick Fire, the National Weather Service said.

Winds in the mountains will have gusts between 50 and 60 miles per hour and relative humidity will remain in the single digits, said Curt Kaplan, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service who covers the Los Angeles area.

"That's going to cause extreme fire behavior with rapid rate of spread," Mr. Kaplan said.

Although the winds are set to subside on Friday evening, they are forecast to return on Sunday.

"The combination of very dry conditions with strong winds and dry fuels - it's just not a good combination," Mr. Kaplan said.

The threatening weather conditions arriving over the weekend prompted the state's largest electrical utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, to warn of another large-scale power outage that will affect areas north and east of San Francisco.

Peak fire season is far from over in California but the wildfires this year have been less catastrophic as those of the past two years. Fewer than 300 structures have burned in wildfires so far this year compared with more than 23,000 in all of last year. And around 163,000 acres have burned this year, according to Cal Fire, the state's fire agency, compared with 1.6 million acres in all of 2018.

'With the winds blowing, it moved fast.'

Around midnight, police officers drove through Frank Cruz's neighborhood near Santa Clarita, blaring sirens and announcing that all residents must leave, as high winds were fanning a quickly moving brush fire.

By Friday morning, Mr. Cruz, and his wife, Cindy, who is seven months pregnant, were waking up in their car, in the parking lot of a Denny's. Ms. Cruz, who has lived in the area for more than a decade and had never been forced to evacuate for a fire, said she thought there were so many evacuations because of an abundance of caution.

After last year's deadly fire season in California, she said, people "aren't taking any chances."

With the Paradise Fire in Northern California claiming more than 80 lives last year, and the Woolsey Fire tearing a destructive path through Malibu and its environs, this year everyone - power companies, fire and law enforcement agencies, residents - is extra cautious. The authorities seem to be quicker to order evacuations at the first sign of fire.

And residents, who in past years may have shrugged off evacuation orders, preferring to remain home and, if necessary, protect their houses, are heeding orders. They are readying their cars, packing them with valuables, just in case they get the order.

"I think people are listening more," said Mary Lindsey, 64, who on Friday morning was eating breakfast at a Red Cross center in a gymnasium at the College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita. "In the past there'd be evacuation orders and people would blow them off. After last year, they aren't doing that."

Ms. Lindsey's husband, Charles, said the fire started in a canyon near their home and quickly burned through dry shrub land that had grown during the heavy rains earlier this year.

"With the winds blowing, it moved fast," said Mr. Lindsey, 68, his dog Ivy at his feet. "In the middle of the night, if you're told to go, you go."

Only one shelter was opened Thursday, and only about 400 people showed up there, according to Roxanne Schorbach, a spokeswoman for the Red Cross. (A second shelter, at a local high school, opened Friday.) The evacuees slept Thursday night on cots in the college gymnasium, many with their pets, and on Friday morning were eating pancakes and bagels and awaiting news.

Smoke expected to cause delays at San Francisco airport.

As smoke swept across the Bay Area on Friday, San Francisco International Airport prepared for flight delays.

"Reduced visibility could lead the F.A.A. to implement a delay program," said Doug Yakel, a spokesman for the airport.

Fire-related delays were not expected at the Oakland International Airport or the San Jose International Airport, according to representatives there.

Though air quality across the Bay Area fell into the moderate category Friday morning, it was expected to get worse as northwest winds pushed smoke across the region, according to Ralph Borrmann, a spokesman for Bay Area Air Quality Management District, which posts updates on its hourly tracker.

Conditions this weekend could lead to the biggest blackouts yet.

Pacific Gas & Electric warned that weather conditions Saturday and Sunday - including the strongest winds of the wildfire season so far - would prompt power shut-offs even bigger than the vast blackouts earlier this month.

In an announcement Friday afternoon, the company said 850,000 customers could expect to lose power as a result of dry, hot and windy weather, forecast from Saturday evening until midday Monday. It described the anticipated conditions as "potentially powerful and widespread."

Since each residential customer represents a household, the number of those affected could be far larger. When the company shut off power to 700,000 customers from Oct. 9 to 12, two million people were left in the dark.

Between the high-risk period and subsequent inspections, power could be cut off for several days, PG&E said.

"None of us wants to be living without power," Bill Johnson, the chief executive of PG&E Corporation, said at a news briefing Thursday. "These power shut-offs are a necessary tool for public safety."

The company is scheduled to hold another briefing at 5:30 p.m. Friday.

PG&E said that as the weekend weather system sweeps from north to south, the timing of the outages will vary locally.

"Predictive data models indicate the weather event could be the most powerful in California in decades," the utility said, with dry winds of 45 to 60 miles an hour, gusting to 60 to 70 m.p.h. at higher elevations.

"Winds of this magnitude pose a higher risk of damage and sparks on the electric system and rapid wildfire spread," the company said. "The fire risk is even higher because vegetation on the ground has been dried out by recent wind events."

Governor Newsom announced Friday that his administration was making $75 million available "to protect public safety, vulnerable populations and individuals and improve resiliency" in the face of pre-emptive blackouts. The governor's office said the funds would help with securing generators, fuel storage or other backup energy sources for fire stations, community centers, health centers and other essential facilities, as well as emergency communications.

16,000 acres of Sonoma County were engulfed by the Kincade Fire.

The Kincade Fire had destroyed 49 structures and burned 16,000 acres in Sonoma County as of Thursday night, according to Cal Fire.

About 1,300 firefighters were battling the blaze, which was about 5 percent contained.

Governor Newsom was set to travel to Sonoma County on Friday to visit communities impacted by the fire.

Evacuation orders covered 2,000 people, according to the authorities in Sonoma County. Wind gusts blew the fire through forests, leaving firefighters with little opportunity to stop or slow down the walls of flames after the fire began on Wednesday night. Sonoma County was ravaged in 2017, when the Sonoma Complex fires killed 24 and burned more than 170 square miles.

The power was on at an IHOP in Napa, and it became a refuge for some who lacked it at home.

Barbara Tonsberg, 93, a former church organist and high school math teacher, was eating pancakes because there was not much to do with the electricity cut off at her home in nearby Angwin.

"Drying your hair doesn't work too well without power," Ms. Tonsberg said. "I'm tired of cold food, but there's nothing you can do but deal with it."

As she spoke, her son, Wayne, got a call on his cellphone. It was an automated message from PG&E. He was advised that the company could not predict when their power would return - and that it might go out again Saturday.

A PG&E tower may be linked to the Kincade Fire. Why was its power on?

The Kincade Fire in Sonoma County, still burning Friday, broke out after Pacific Gas & Electric began its pre-emptive power shut-offs in the area on Wednesday. PG&E later said one of its transmission towers was being looked at as a possible cause of the fire.

But wasn't preventing a fire the point of the blackout?

As it happens, when electricity was cut off to homes and businesses, it was still flowing through the long-distance lines that make up the power grid.

The distinction is much like the role of neighborhood streets in relation to a major highway. The major arteries - the transmission lines - are supported by substantial metal towers engineered to provide multiple points of support for the wires. The wooden poles strung with the wires that deliver the power to customers - the distribution lines - are less sturdy. And that makes them more susceptible to wind.

Mr. Johnson said at a news conference Thursday night that based on the utility's analysis, the wind forecast did not warrant cutting power to the transmission lines in the area of the Kincade Fire, even though the distribution system had been shut down.

San Diego Gas & Electric, which pioneered the strategy of cutting power as a wildfire safety measure, said it also typically cut power only to the distribution lines, unless extreme weather warranted stopping the electricity flow through transmission lines.

PG&E said in a regulatory filing on Thursday that fire officials had informed a company employee about "what appeared to be a broken jumper" on a transmission tower near the origin of the Kincade Fire. It said it was continuing to investigate, along with state fire officials.

The tower under scrutiny was 43 years old and had recently been inspected, Mr. Johnson said.

By early Friday morning, most utility customers across California had their power restored.

How to evacuate an emu from a fire.

When evacuating an anxious emu from an oncoming fire, it's useful to put a sock over its head and beak.

This is one of the lessons that deTraci Regula, the executive director of Isis Oasis Sanctuary in Geyserville, has learned over the years. Ms. Regula evacuated her collection of 120 or so animals, which includes alpacas, snakes, lizards and birds - along with three emus - from the facility Thursday morning. She had previously evacuated the animals from an oncoming fire in 2017.

Ms. Regula, who lives at the center, said that she was alerted at 11 p.m. Wednesday night that a fire had broken out. At around 6:30 a.m. Thursday, she heard a siren. The sheriff told the sanctuary residents to promptly evacuate.

"We were in heavy ashfall with smoke in the dark, evacuating our animals," she said in an interview.

The emus, which are over five feet tall, have been at the facility for 30 years, Ms. Regula said, and do not like traveling. But the sock helped, as they were guided to the back of a hatchback.

"They cannot see so they become more manageable and easier to guide," Ms. Regula said.

About 18 volunteers helped transport the animals - which included two alpacas, Bambi and Captain Jack, as first reported by The San Francisco Chronicle - to various locations throughout the county, she said. The sanctuary was still intact as of Friday afternoon. And over all, the animals were doing fine in their temporary homes, she said.

The new normal?

The Kincade and Tick Fires in California are the latest in the state to force evacuations and threaten homes. Earlier this month the Saddleridge and Saddlewood Fires swept across Southern California prompting the question: Is this the new normal?

The total area burned in a single year by wildfires in the United States has exceeded 13,900 square miles - an area larger than the country of Belgium - only four times since the middle of last century. All four times have happened this decade, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA. As a result, government agencies are preparing themselves to deal with fires that are increasingly seen as inevitable.

Some times, it means setting fires on purpose - a practice known as prescribed burns - or trying to understand how wildfire smoke behaves to be better prepared to warn residents of the risks.

Tim Arango reported from Santa Clarita, Calif., and Thomas Fuller from San Francisco. Ivan Penn, Heather Murphy and Kendra Pierre-Louis contributed reporting from New York.

26. lokakuuta 2019 7:42:00 Categories: RFI The New York Times

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