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California

PG&E says transmission line broke as Sonoma fire began

Pacific Gas & Electric said Thursday that one of its transmission lines experienced problems Wednesday night around the area where a large Sonoma County fire broke out.

In a mandatory report sent to the California Public Utilities Commission, the company said one of its workers noticed this morning that the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection had taped off the area. PG&E said Cal Fire also pointed out a “broken jumper on the same tower.”

PG&E had been shutting off power to residents to avoid fires sparked by electric lines. The utility company said nearly 28,000 people in Sonoma County, including Geyserville and the surrounding area, lost power when distribution lines were shut off at 3 p.m. Wednesday. The company said transmission lines, which operate at a higher voltage, remained energized at the time the fire started.

Transmission lines generally carry electricity from power plants to substations. Distribution lines deliver power directly to homes and businesses.

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Investigators don’t know whether the power lines caused the fire.

The entire town of Geyserville and vineyards across Northern California wine country were forced to evacuate as the blaze, pushed by wind gusts topping 70 mph, burned out of control in a rural section of Sonoma County.

Some Geyserville residents evacuated in the darkness after PG&E shut power off to areas in Sonoma County and the Kincade fire crossed California 128, moving west toward homes in the town of 929 people.

Fire officials said 49 structures were destroyed and the Geysers geothermal facilities run by Calpine Corp. reported some damage.

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There have been no fatalities or reports of missing persons, officials said.

Firefighters worked in consistently hot, dry and windy conditions through the night, making it difficult for them to reach certain areas of the steep terrain where the fire was burning, said Will Powers, a spokesman for Cal Fire.

On Thursday morning, 10 air tankers and helicopters were being used to fight the fire from above as ground crews attempted to add containment lines around the blaze, Powers said.

But as firefighters struggled to make progress, the fire leapfrogged through wine country, and embers pushed by winds ignited blazes throughout the region.

Pushed by wind gusts that topped 70 mph, a monster brush fire spread rapidly overnight in a rural section of Sonoma County, threatening communities and forcing evacuations.

The wind-driven Kincade fire has burned an estimated 16,000 acres and was 5% contained, according to Cal Fire and local officials. The fire started in a mountainous area late Wednesday near Kincade and Burned Mountain roads.

Evacuations have been ordered for Red Winery Road; all of Alexander Mountain Road; California 128 from Geysers Road to River Road, including River Rock Casino in Geyserville; and all roads off River Road. The Healdsburg Community Center and the Sonoma County Fairgrounds have opened as evacuation centers.

kincade_map_1024-01.jpg
Evacuation orders were in place for communities north of Healdsburg early Thursday morning.
(Los Angeles Times)

Residents of northern Healdsburg were under an evacuation warning and advised they should be ready to leave.

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Dwight Monson, 68, of Geyserville thought his family home was safe when, about 2 a.m., he and others saw the ridge behind their ranch consumed by flames.

“We’ve never seen Black Mountain burn,” said Monson, who was gathered with his family in the parking lot of the Healdsburg Community Center on Thursday morning. “We thought we were a couple of miles from the fire. But guess what — the winds.”

Monson, who lives on the ranch with his wife, son and brothers, said that by the time they jumped in their cars and headed to the valley below, the flames were already on the far edge of their property. He thought a 1,000-acre Kendall-Jackson vineyard adjacent to his ranch would provide a buffer, but the fierce winds pushed embers miles ahead.

Monson said the power shut-offs provided a false sense of relief.

“With the power off, we had no thought that there was going to be fire,” he said. “So we just went about our business doing projects. We picked grapes yesterday morning. It was a minor nuisance, but we have a couple of generators.”

Then reports came Wednesday of a fire breaking out just miles away. A sheriff’s deputy drove to the ranch about 10:30 p.m. saying there was a mandatory evacuation order. The family quickly packed up their most precious belongings and important documents, and sent their grandchildren to safety.

But the rest of the family stayed, confident they could see the flames coming soon enough to escape the path of the fire.

“We looked up the hill and couldn’t believe what we saw,” Monson said. “To see that whole thing, just red flame.”

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The Monsons are still waiting to hear whether their home survived the fire. On the drive out, they saw a neighbor’s house on fire.

Madonna Tavares, 70, of Geyserville said she could hardly see a foot in front of her because of the thick smoke as she rushed to evacuate from her home. With the power out, she and her husband scrambled in the dark to get dressed, find their two small dogs and jump in their car.

“They shut off the power and we still had a fire,” she said. “I don’t understand it.”

The couple heard news reports about the fire Wednesday evening near the River Rock Casino but said it appeared to have died down by the time they went to sleep around midnight. At 5:30 a.m., they were awakened by a loud bang at the door.

“Get out! Get out!” the Tavareses’ landlord shouted.

Tavares said it wasn’t until she and her husband were safe in the Healdsburg Community Center that she finally broke down in tears.

“I really hope [the house] didn’t burn down,” she said. “We’ve been there four years. We just finished furnishing the place. I painted the whole inside, and we just got it the way we liked. Now the fire will take that away.”

Weather conditions in the area have created severe fire danger, said National Weather Service meteorologist Drew Peterson, with wind gusts reaching 76 mph overnight northeast of Healdsburg and humidity levels in the low teens. By Thursday morning, the strongest winds had subsided.

However, winds are expected to intensify in the coming days, fire officials said.

“Given the weather that’s coming in and the terrain, this entire fire area is truly a concern for us,” said Cal Fire incident commander Mike Parkes. “There’s not one area we can take lightly.”

Parkes did not specifically comment on whether PG&E equipment may have caused the fire, saying that investigators are looking into all possible causes.

The fire comes two years after a series of blazes devastated Santa Rosa and other wine country communities, leaving dozens dead and thousands of homes lost. The Tubbs fire of Sonoma and Napa counties, which started in October 2017, killed 22 people and eventually destroyed more than 5,000 homes.

Residents of Santa Rosa were on edge early Thursday morning with the fire burning to the north.

“It’s scary for a lot of people,” Healdsburg Mayor David Hagele said. “My daughter was scared this morning.”

Hagele said that by 9 a.m., 40 evacuees were at the Healdsburg Community Center, where mental health services were being offered.

“That’s really important when you have these traumatic events, especially this close to the anniversary of the Tubbs fire,” Hagele said. “Our whole county has been affected by that.”

Sonoma County has secured aid from the state to assist in fighting the fire. Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Thursday that the county would receive a Fire Management Assistance Grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that will assist local, state and tribal agencies in recovering up to 75% of their fire suppression costs.

“We are grateful for the swift approval of our request to ensure all resources are available to support the heroic work of our firefighters and first responders working to contain this fire and keep local communities safe,” Newsom said.

Large swaths of California are facing red-flag fire alerts this week because of high temperatures, low humidity and strong winds. The fire danger has prompted preventive power outages in many areas, including parts of wine country.

In all, more than a million Californians could lose power this week.

Shortly after 2 p.m. Wednesday, Pacific Gas & Electric cut power to 27,837 customers in Sonoma County. An hour later, counties in the northern San Francisco Bay Area lost power. By 1 a.m. Thursday, portions of San Mateo and Kern counties were also in the dark, bringing the total number of PG&E customers without power to 179,000.

At a news conference Thursday, Newsom criticized the public utility companies, especially PG&E, for not making investments in fixing their systems in anticipation of the current climate reality and said they must be held accountable.

“This is unacceptable,” he said. “Issues of corporate greed meeting issues of climate change have created these conditions.”

In its destructive march through wine country, the Kincade fire also “flashed through” a portion of the Geysers geothermal power generation facility late Wednesday and some operations were temporarily suspended, said Brett Kerr, a spokesman for plant operator Calpine, in an email Thursday morning.

“We believe there is relatively minor damage to our facilities and further threat has passed,” Kerr said. “As safety permits and daylight arrives, we will conduct a thorough assessment.”

The Geysers facility, which sits on 45 square miles along the Sonoma County-Lake County line, is the world’s largest geothermal power production operation.

Though the blaze is believed to have started nearby, Kerr said that the Geysers had de-energized its local grid before the fire because of the wind.

“We do not believe our facilities caused the fire,” he said. He noted that there are power lines operated by third parties across the Geysers.

Times staff writer Colleen Shalby contributed to this report.


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