Winds driving California wine country fire abate - for now

GEYSERVILLE - The winds that drove wildfires that forced some 2,000 people to flee homes in Northern California's wine country are expected to abate on Friday.

While it gives firefighters a better chance to tackle the blaze and utility workers time to re-connect electricity, the break may be short-lived, forecasters with the National Weather Service (NWS) said early Friday.

Some electric companies re-doubled their efforts to hook up customers as the "all clear" was given on Thursday, with a reduction in the west winds that packed gusts of 40-to-50 mph.

But Marc Chenard, a forecaster with the NWS's Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland warned: "This isn't over."

"Yes, it's improving, most of the warnings there have been lifted for now," Chenard said. "But we have another event coming in for Saturday and at least through Sunday.

Nonetheless, Pacific Gas and Electric Co, utility said it expects to have power restored to all of the approximate 178,000 customers shut off this week sometime Friday.

The company has restored nearly 165,000 customers in portions of 18 counties, it said early Friday.

The power had been turned off to prevent wildfires from fallen power lines from the Sierra Foothills to the North Bay to San Mateo and Kern counties, the company said.

While the cause of the fire has not been determined, it appears to have erupted near the base of a damaged high-voltage transmission tower owned by PG&E.

The company, a unit of bankrupt holding company PG&E Corp , said in an "electric safety incident" report to the California Public Utilities Commission that one of its power lines malfunctioned at about the time and in the location of the fire's origin on Wednesday night.

It said a PG&E technician inspecting the site on Thursday found the area taped off by state fire department personnel who brought to his attention "what appeared to be a broken jumper on the same tower."

PG&E had shut down some electric distribution wires in the area as a precaution against high winds at the time. But high-voltage transmission lines such as the one in question were left on as they were deemed durable enough for the forecast conditions, the utility said in a statement.

Neither PG&E nor the commission said whether the damaged tower or the malfunctioning transmission line attached to it were suspected of igniting the blaze, dubbed the Kincade fire, which has destroyed about a dozen homes and other structures.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said it is investigating. It listed the same place and time of origin for the fire as the tower incident reported by PG&E.

PG&E filed for bankruptcy protection last January with over $30 billion in liability stemming from wildfires in 2017 and 2018 found to have been sparked by its equipment.

The Kincade fire in Sonoma County was the worst of several blazes raging throughout California as PG&E and other utilities cut off electricity to nearly 200,000 homes and businesses in preventive blackouts.

Hundreds of miles south in the Canyon County community of Los Angeles County, a blaze prompted evacuation of an estimated 40,000 residents. Flames consumed about 5,000 acres (2,000 hectares) and destroyed some structures, according to the Los Angeles City News Service.


By early Friday, the Sonoma County blaze had scorched about 16,000 acres Cal Fire said. No injuries have been reported and only 800 acres had been contained by Friday morning.

Ground crews fought the blaze at close range with hand tools and bulldozers, assisted by water-dropping helicopters and airplane tankers carrying fire-retardant slurry.

The Sonoma County sheriff's office ordered the evacuation of Geyserville, a town of nearly 900 people. A Reuters photographer saw about a dozen homes in flames in the town on Thursday.

By midday, mandatory evacuation notices covered a total of roughly 2,000 people, the sheriff's office said. An evacuation warning in the northern end of nearby Healdsburg urged residents to be ready to flee at a moment's notice.

Both towns, about 75 miles (120 km) north of San Francisco, are hubs of upscale restaurants, wine-tasting rooms, inns and shops surrounded by hills dotted with vineyards.

The number of homes and workplaces without power could climb to more than 500,000 under worst-case scenarios for precautionary outages this week, according to PG&E, Southern California Edison and other electricity providers.

Earlier on Thursday, California Governor Gavin Newsom, who called PG&E's handling of that incident "unacceptable," said the company appeared to have "significantly" improved its readiness for this week's wildfire threat.
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