‘It takes one ember … to start another brush fire’: Extreme winds put California fire officials on high alert
The Kincade, Getty and Tick fires are some of many wildfires that are raging through California. They have led to mass evacuations and power outages. USA TODAY
LOS ANGELES — Gusty winds are threatening to further spread wildfires that are already burning up and down California on Wednesday, putting thousands of residents on alert for another wave of evacuation orders.
As the Getty Fire threatened 7,000 homes, Los Angeles officials stationed crews at fire-prone locations in an effort to quickly extinguish any new blazes. “Extreme” red-flag warnings took effect at 11 p.m. Tuesday and were expected to persist into Thursday night, bringing the potential for “rapid fire spread” and “extreme fire behavior,” according to the National Weather Service.
“It takes one ember, just one ember downwind, to start another brush fire, so I encourage all people in the city of Los Angeles and the neighboring communities to register for alerts,” said Los Angeles Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas.
Low humidity, dry fuel and sustained winds up to 55 mph conspired to test firefighters, who had contained 15% of the 656-acre Getty Fire by Tuesday evening. The flames had injured one firefighter and destroyed or damaged 18 buildings.
Mandatory evacuation orders were still in place in some areas, and Terrazas warned nearby neighborhoods to be prepared to flee.
In Sonoma County, north of San Francisco, firefighters battling the Kincade Fire faced another round of the “Diablo” winds. Sustained gusts between 20 and 30 mph could fan the 118-square-mile blaze, but pose less of a threat than winds recorded over the weekend.
The wildfire had damaged or destroyed more than 200 buildings, including an 150-year-old winery, and was 15% contained Tuesday evening. Another 80,000 homes were threatened, prompting officials to keep 15 evacuation centers open.
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About 200,000 people had been forced from the area since the fire ignited last week, although officials have reduced some evacuation orders to evacuation warnings as firefighting efforts progressed.
“Our hearts and prayers are with the firefighters out there doing a spectacular job, but with the situation so fluid, with the winds still blowing, we’re not through this yet,” said Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt.
Preemptive power shutoffs also weren’t over for nearly 1.5 million Northern and Central California residents. Pacific Gas & Electric turned off power in 29 counties Tuesday, marking its fourth shutoff this month and third in the last week.
Southern California Edison warned that crews may cut off power for an additional 300,000 customers — mainly in Los Angeles, Ventura, and San Bernardino counties — if conditions worsen this week.
The shutoffs, designed to reduce the risk of utility equipment sparking wildfires during strong wind events, have drawn criticism from residents and public officials.
PG&E on Tuesday yielded to pressure from Gov. Gavin Newsom by announcing it will issue a bill credit for customers affected by the first shutoff this month. Residential customers will see a $100 credit in the next billing cycle and businesses will get $250, the utility said. Credits will not be issued for the subsequent shutoffs, PG&E said, because the company worked to improve how it notified customers.
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“This is not an industry standard practice, nor approved as part of a tariff, but we believe it is the right thing to do for our customers in this case, given the challenges with our website and call center communications,” said the utility’s CEO and President Bill Johnson.
The utility is also facing scrutiny amid Cal Fire’s investigation into the Kincade Fire’s origin. PG&E acknowledged last week a live, 230,000-volt transmission line malfunctioned minutes before the fire erupted Wednesday night.
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