Hundreds flee Northern California wildfire amid blackouts
GEYSERVILLE, Calif. (AP) — Hundreds of people were forced to flee Northern California wine country early Thursday as a wildfire exploded in size, fueled by 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.
Harry Bosworth, 81, who ignored initial warnings to leave, awoke before sunrise to find a firetruck and firefighters in his driveway.
"I could see the fire coming, so we got the heck out of there," Bosworth said.
As he and his wife drove off, flames surrounded their driveway and their barn caught fire.
The blaze started around 9:30 p.m. Wednesday. The cause 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.
The state's largest electric utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, announced Wednesday that it would begin rolling power outages, lasting for 48 hours, in parts of Northern California in anticipation of strong winds that could knock branches into power lines or topple them, sparking wildfires. PG&E spokesman Paul Doherty said parts of Geyserville lost power as scheduled Wednesday.
PG&E 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.
Other utilities also cut power Wednesday and Thursday to some residents in Southern California, where at least two fires had erupted. Those blazes have remained small.
Many Geyserville residents, including Bosworth, lived through a series of fires that 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 Thursday after 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.'"
The fire also threatened some of the area's famed wineries. The Francis Ford Coppola Winery posted on Facebook that its property was without power but "not currently in danger." The Robert Young Estate Winery said in an 8 a.m. post that "there is fire on our property" affecting brush and pasture areas but not structures or people.
The nearby town of Healdsburg set up a shelter for evacuees in a community center that can accommodate pets and has mental health counselors available, Mayor David Hagele said.
"Anything we can do to help our neighbors is a great help," he said.
Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that the state had secured a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help fight the fire. He did not say how money the state would get.
Newsom, a Democrat, is among those who have criticized PG&E and other utilities for the rolling blackouts and their handling of wildfire dangers.
PG&E's rolling power outages that started Wednesday stretched 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 another round of outages could occur over the weekend.
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.
"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."
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.