California declares statewide emergency as wildfires rage

Firefighters battling the Kincade fire in Healdsburg, California, on Sunday. Wildfires spreading throughout the US state have burned thousands of hectares and forced more than 180,000 people to evacuate.
Firefighters battling the Kincade fire in Healdsburg, California, on Sunday. Wildfires spreading throughout the US state have burned thousands of hectares and forced more than 180,000 people to evacuate.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

SONOMA COUNTY (California) • Fuelled by powerful winds, the massive Kincade fire continued its south-west march across Sonoma County on Sunday, burning winery properties and threatening to jump Highway 101 as more than two million people across the region were thrown into darkness because of Pacific Gas & Electric Co blackouts.

Governor Gavin Newsom declared a statewide emergency on Sunday as wildfires spread throughout California, burning thousands of hectares and forcing evacuations of more than 180,000 people. The 12,000ha Kincade fire has destroyed 79 structures and threatens an additional 31,000.

"We are deploying every resource available and coordinating with numerous agencies," Mr Newsom said. "It is critical that people in evacuation zones heed the warnings from officials and first responders."

By 5pm on Sunday, the Northern California fire crisis had prompted a massive mandatory evacuation footprint that stretched from the vineyards of Sonoma County to the coastal community of Bodega Bay, encompassing cities including Calistoga, Sebastopol, Healdsburg, Windsor and Santa Rosa.

As night approached, the biggest concern was that the fire would cross Highway 101 and ignite an area that has not burned since the 1940s, fire officials said. Officials worried the blaze would spread to agricultural land mostly used to grow grapes and reach a dense mountainous region of old-growth redwood forest.

More than 3,000 local, state and federal firefighting personnel were battling the Kincade fire on an extreme wind day that saw one gust of 154kmh in the fire zone.

Winds were predicted to continue through the night and into yesterday morning. They were expected to die down in the afternoon, allowing for a more aggressive aerial attack.

Structures in the famed wine region burned, including some owned by wineries in the Alexander Valley.

Pacific Gas & Electric customers struggling without electrical power could remain in the dark until tomorrow, utility spokesman Mayra Tostado said on Sunday.

 
 
 

Evacuation centres were filled with fire refugees, many who left their homes in pre-dawn darkness after sleepless hours listening to their phones ping with evacuation updates.

Windsor resident Eva Mendoza had packed only a few items, including a toothbrush and a change of clothes, before finding a place that would accept her cocker spaniel Natalia. It was her 52nd birthday and she had plans to attend a concert in San Francisco. But then the evacuation orders came.

In her rush to vacate, she left pictures and mementoes behind. "I didn't have time to wrap anything else," she said through tears.

The cause of the Kincade fire is still under investigation, but some suspicion is already turning to transmission lines owned by Pacific Gas & Electric. The utility company said last Thursday that one of its transmission lines had experienced problems last Wednesday around the area where the fire broke out.

DPA

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 29, 2019, with the headline 'California declares statewide emergency as wildfires rage'. Print Edition | Subscribe