Officials ordered 2,000 people to evacuate their homes and businesses in Northern California wine country Thursday after a wildfire exploded in size, fueled by powerful winds that prompted utilities throughout the state to impose electrical blackouts to prevent fires.
The entire community of Geyserville and nearby residents were told to leave after the fire in the Sonoma County wine region north of San Francisco grew to more than 15 square miles (39 square kilometers).
Among those fleeing the flames was 81-year-old Harry Bosworth, who awoke before sunrise to find a firetruck and firefighters in his driveway. As he and his wife drove off, flames surrounded their driveway and their barn caught fire.
"I could see the fire coming, so we got the heck out of there," Bosworth said.
The fire started Wednesday night near the Geysers, the world's largest geothermal field where nearly two dozen power plants draw steam from more than 350 mountain wells to create electricity, said Mike Parkes, incident commander with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The cause of the blaze was not yet known, he said, but it was fueled overnight by 60 mph (95 kph) winds.
The rugged terrain was hard to access, he said, and by Thursday afternoon, the blaze raged on the outskirts of Geyserville.
There were no immediate reports of any injuries. Authorities did not yet know how many buildings were destroyed.
Some people were refusing to leave despite the dangers, Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick said.
"Please heed our evacuation order," he said in a televised news conference. "We really need to be able to fight the fire, rather than worrying about rescuing you."
The fire raged amid rolling blackouts that utilities in California have said are designed to keep winds that could top 70 mph (113 kph) from knocking branches into power lines or toppling them, sparking wildfires. Electrical equipment was blamed for setting several blazes in recent years that killed scores of people and burned thousands of homes.
The state's largest electric utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, filed for bankruptcy protection in January as it faced billions of dollars of damages from such wildfires. 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 announced Wednesday that it would begin rolling power outages, lasting for 48 hours, in parts of Northern California in anticipation of dangerous fire conditions, including unseasonably hot weather and low humidity combined with the strong winds. PG&E spokesman Paul Doherty said parts of Geyserville lost power as scheduled Wednesday.
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 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.
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 power outages 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.
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."
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