California wildfire forces 180,000 evacuations as strong winds spur more outages

Authorities say 180,000 people have been ordered to leave their homes as powerful winds threaten to spread a wildfire in Northern California’s wine country.

The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office tweeted Sunday that it’s the largest evacuation that any member of the force can remember.

The evacuation order was significantly expanded overnight to portions of Santa Rosa, Calif., a city of 175,000 that was hit hard two years ago by a wildfire that destroyed thousands of homes and killed 22 people.

The evacuation order affects the northwestern section of the city. Fire officials said they are concerned the winds will blow embers and cause the fire to jump a major highway and spread to population centres.

Evacuation orders were issued for parts of Santa Rosa on Sunday as firefighters struggled to beat back a wind-driven wildfire that started in Northern California’s wine country four days ago.

The state’s largest utility company shut power to 2.3 million people to prevent additional wildfires.

Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) started shutting off power on Saturday around 5 p.m. PT for customers in 38 counties and said the electricity could remain off for 48 hours or longer. Concern that gusts could knock down power lines and spark devastating wildfires prompted two blackouts in California in recent weeks.

The city of San Francisco was not in line for a blackout amid shutoffs for most of the rest of the San Francisco Bay Area, the wine country to the north and the Sierra foothills.

The wind-driven Kincade Fire burns near the town of Healdsburg early Sunday. (Stephen Lam/Reuters)

California fire officials said the current wildfire, dubbed the Kincade Fire, that began Wednesday night has burned at least 100 square kilometres and is only 11 per cent contained.

The U.S. National Weather Service said wind gusts topped 140 km/h Sunday morning in Healdsburg Hills North, a city in California’s wine country. 

The service called it an “historic” wind event, while the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said strong winds could lead to “erratic fire behaviour” and spread embers for kilometres.

A firefighter from Dry Creek Rancheria carries a flag he removed from a building as the Kincade Fire bears down on Healdsburg. (Noah Berger/The Associated Press)

Even before the new blackout order, the University of California, Berkeley announced it was cancelling all Saturday afternoon classes, as well as other indoor events and activities scheduled through Sunday.

Saturday night’s evacuation order encompassed a huge swath of wine country stretching from the inland community of Healdsburg west through the Russian River Valley and to Bodega Bay on the coast, Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick said. An even broader area was put under a warning for residents to get ready to leave at a moment’s notice.

The sheriff pleaded with residents in the evacuation zone to get out immediately, citing the lives lost when a wildfire swept through the region two years ago.

“I’m seeing people reporting that they’re going to stay and fight this fire,” Essick said. “You cannot fight this. Please evacuate.”

The wind event was expected to peak early Sunday and would likely be the strongest in several years, said PG&E meteorologist Scott Strenfel. He said Saturday that falling trees and breaking branches were likely. Relative humidity will dip into single digits, he said.

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