Hundreds flee fire in California wine country amid blackouts
GEYSERVILLE, Calif. (AP) — Hundreds of people were forced to flee Northern California wine country early Thursday as a wildfire exploded in size amid dangerous winds that prompted utilities throughout the state to impose electrical blackouts to prevent fires.
Authorities ordered the entire community of Geyserville to evacuate after the fire in the Sonoma County wine region north of San Francisco grew to more than 15 square miles (39 square kilometers). The town has about 900 residents and is a popular stop for wine country tourists.
The cause of the blaze was not yet known, but strong, dry winds with gusts of up to 70 mph (113 kph) have affected much of the state, including that area. There were no immediate reports of any injuries.
Winds slowed after daybreak, helping firefighters get a handle on the blaze, but it was still growing, said California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Jonathan Cox. He did not have an estimate on the number of buildings destroyed.
A series of deadly blazes tore through the same area two years ago, killing 44 people.
Mary Ceglarski-Sherwin and her husband, Matt Ceglarski-Sherwin, lost their Santa Rosa rental home during one of those fires and fled the flames again early Thursday when Mary's asthma awakened her around 2:30 a.m. Their power was still on when they grabbed their small dogs, some clothes and emergency kits they acquired during the last fire.
"I told him, 'We gotta go, we gotta go; I can feel it changing,'" Mary Ceglarski-Sherwin told the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat. "By the time we got out there, we could feel the heat and see the smoke.'"
At least two fires have erupted in Southern California, but they have remained small.
Utilities in California have said the power shutoffs are designed to keep winds that could gust to 60 mph (97 kph) or more from knocking branches into power lines or toppling them, sparking wildfires.
The state's largest utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, filed for bankruptcy protection in January as it faced billions of dollars of damages from wildfires sparked by its equipment that have killed scores of people and destroyed thousands of homes over the past couple of years. The investor-owned energy company has set aside billions of dollars for insurance companies and wildfire victims while facing a public backlash over its handling of the incidents.
PG&E began rolling power outages Wednesday stretching from the Sierra foothills in the northeast to portions of the San Francisco Bay Area, affecting a half-million people — or nearly 180,000 customers. PG&E warned that a second round of outages could occur over the weekend when winds were forecast to return.
In Southern California, hot and dry Santa Ana winds prompted Southern California Edison to cut power to more than 15,000 customers. The utility was considering additional power cuts to more than 286,000 customers.
The San Diego Gas & Electric utility said it cut power to about 328 customers.
The latest outages come two weeks after PG&E shut down power for several days to about 2 million people in northern and central California.
"We understand the hardship caused by these shutoffs," PG&E CEO Bill Johnson said. "But we also understand the heartbreak and devastation caused by catastrophic wildfires."
Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore said PG&E was better this time about getting information to people who would be affected, but he was still astonished by the need to resort to largescale blackouts.
"I am a big believer in shutdowns to prevent fires. But the thing that erodes public trust is when it doesn't make sense," he said. "You say, 'God, I know if we can put a man on the moon ... we can manage a (power) grid.'"
Gecker reported from San Francisco. Associated Press writers Janie Har in San Francisco and John Antczak and Christopher Weber in Los Angeles contributed to this report.