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Millions lose power as fires rip through California

Paul Conner

An estimated 2.35 million people in 38 counties began losing power Saturday evening as fires burned in Northern and Southern California.

Pacific Gas & Electric Company began shutting off electricity Saturday at 5 p.m. local time for 940,000 homes and businesses in the San Francisco Bay Area, wine country to the north and the Sierra foothills.

The Kincade fire in Sonoma County had burned 26,000 acres and was around 11% contained as of Sunday morning. About 180,000 residents were ordered to evacuate near the Kincade blaze.

Meanwhile, the Tick fire in northern Los Angeles County had burned 4,600 acres and was 55% contained as of Sunday. Nearly all the 50,000 residents ordered to evacuate last week were allowed back home.

The evacuations were the largest that anyone at the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office could remember,

The shutoffs were expected to continue until at least Monday, when forecasters expect high winds to die down and PG&E inspectors examine power lines to look for damage.

Scott Strenfel, a meteorologist for PG&E, said the bankrupt utility continues to monitor what “appears to be a very strong and dangerous fire weather event.”

“All the conditions needed for significant fires will be present in this event,” Strenfel said during a Saturday briefing, adding that the strongest winds would be overnight Saturday and Sunday morning.

PG&E said a 230,000-volt transmission line near Geyserville malfunctioned minutes before the Kincade blaze erupted Wednesday night.

The utility acknowledged a tower malfunction prompted a strategy change for determining when to kill high-voltage transmission lines, Andrew Vesey, CEO of Pacific Gas & Electric Co., said Friday.

The fires and power outages had some residents considering whether they should leave the state entirely.

Jon Robinson, 52, and his family moved to California seven years ago.

"Before this, we planned on staying," Robinson said. "But I'll tell you what, it's just too nerve-racking."

Businesses have felt significant pain this fire season.

About 30 miles (48 kilometers) northeast of Sacramento, 65-year-old Sukhwinder Singh said he worked the Quality Market convenience store cash register in the dark, but nobody wanted warm soda and melted ice cream. He estimates he lost about $1,100 in sales and products. Singh has a generator now, but said he can't keep it running all night when the store is closed.

"I don't know how we can pay the bills at the end of the month," he said.

Also northeast of Sacramento, Scott Paris estimates about $20,000 lost in shutting down his High-Hand Nursery and Cafe when PG&E cut the power earlier this month for about 24 hours during a weekday. A beautiful fall Sunday might bring $50,000 to $60,000 worth of business.

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"We're scrambling to get enough generators," he said. "If this is the new normal, it's going to drive up a lot of costs. It drives up stress."

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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