3 killed in N. California as thousands flee wildfires


ST. HELENA, Calif. (AP) — California firefighters battled destructive new wildfires in wine country north of San Francisco Monday as strong winds fanned flames in the already badly scorched state.

The new fires erupted Sunday in the famed Napa-Sonoma wine region in far Northern California’s Shasta County, forcing hasty evacuations of neighborhoods.

In wine country, flames engulfed the distinctive Chateau Boswell Winery north of St. Helena, The Black Rock Inn in the small community of St. Helena and multiple homes in the city of Santa Rosa, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. Residents of a senior home were among those evacuated.

The Adventist Health St. Helena hospital suspended care and transferred all patients elsewhere, according to a statement on its website.

The wine country blaze had burned 17 square miles (44 square kilometers) as of early Monday, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire.

Numerous studies in recent years have linked bigger wildfires in America to global warming from the burning of coal, oil and gas, especially because climate change has made California much drier. A drier California means plants are more flammable.

Evacuations were also ordered in Shasta County as that fire spread.

The causes of both new fires were under investigation.

During the weekend, the Pacific Gas & Electric utility turned off electricity to targeted areas where the winds raised the potential for arcing or other power equipment damage that could spark new fires.

So far this year, more than 8,100 California wildfires have scorched 5,780 square miles (14,970 square kilometers), destroyed more than 7,000 buildings and killed 26 people.

Most of the losses occurred after a frenzy of dry lightning strikes in mid-August ignited a massive outbreak of fires.

Power will be shut off for 65,000 Northern California electric customers in 16 counties to prevent the spread of wildfires that have engulfed areas of the state, officials said Sunday.

Pacific Gas & Electric, the nation’s largest electric utility, shut off power to 11,000 customers beginning at 4 a.m. Sunday and planned to cut service to another 54,000 customers by 8 p.m.

The company expected to have power restored by Monday evening to all customers.

PG&E Incident Commander Mark Quinlan said the initial plan was to temporarily cut service to 89,000 customers but continuous monitoring enabled the company to reduce the number by 27%.

The initial power outage for 11,000 customers occurred in Butte and Plumas counties.

The second shutdown phase beginning Sunday evening was planned for Alpine, Amador, Butte, Calaveras, El Dorado, Lake, Napa, Nevada, Placer, Plumas, Shasta, Sierra, Tehama and Yuba counties. Two customers were also scheduled for shutdowns in Sonoma County.

Shutoffs were also scheduled to begin Monday at 7 a.m. in Kern County for a small number of customers.

The company plans to begin restoring power after receiving confirmation that the weather and wildfire risks enable patrols, inspections and repairs by 50 helicopters and about 1,700 ground personnel in vehicles and on foot.

The shutoff was enacted as result of a red flag warning because of high winds, officials said.

PG&E Senior Meteorologist Scott Strenfel said beginning Saturday evening there was a reported wind speed of 15-30 mph (24-48 kph), 40-55 mph (64-89 kph) wind gusts and humidity levels of 15% to 20%.

The company continues to monitor weather conditions in concert with federal agencies including the National Weather Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Customer Experience Manager Vanessa Bryan said PG&E sent 913,000 customer notifications and is operating 28 community resource centers from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. while power is out. As of Sunday evening, the centers had received about 1,200 visitors, Bryan said.

The shutoffs came as a new, swift-moving wildfire broke out in Napa County, which prompted evacuations of homes and a hospital. The fire was burning near several wineries and churned through 1.9 square miles (4.9 square kilometers) Sunday, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

Fire-weary California is facing a new siege of hot, dry weather with potentially strong winds that could cause power lines to arc and spark new blazes in parched vegetation that’s ready to burn.

Red Flag warnings for extreme fire weather conditions were issued for the northern and central areas of the state from late Saturday to Monday, the National Weather Service said. Similar warnings were in place for parts of Southern California's San Bernardino and Riverside counties on Monday.

So far this year, more than 8,100 California wildfires have scorched 5,780 square miles (14,970 square kilometers), destroyed more than 7,000 buildings and killed 26 people.

Most of the loss has occurred since a frenzy of dry lightning strikes in mid-August ignited a massive outbreak of fires. The causes of other fires remain under investigation and authorities said one was caused by a pyrotechnic device at a gender reveal event.

On Sunday, wind drove smoke from the new Napa County fire toward Sonoma and Marin counties, worsening the air quality, said Gerry Diaz, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

“We just have smoke on all fronts, unfortunately,” Diaz said.

Originally published