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Spreading Fire Forces Evacuations in California Wine Country

David R. Baker and Mark Chediak
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Spreading Fire Forces  Evacuations in California Wine Country

(Bloomberg) -- Fires burning out of control in northern California prompted an historic evacuation in the state’s famed wine country, razed homes, shuttered freeways and prompted the governor to declare a state of emergency.

Driven by a wind storm packing 90-mile-per-hour gusts, the flames forced the evacuation of almost 200,000 people in Sonoma County north of San Francisco, with cars clogging roads Sunday as residents fled south. The Kincade fire, which erupted minutes after a PG&E Corp. power line malfunctioned Wednesday night, shut down the region’s main traffic artery -- Highway 101 -- burned almost 80 buildings and engulfed at least one winery.

Miles to the east, separate fires Sunday morning shut down the Interstate 80 freeway and prompted evacuations in the town of Crockett.

“We are deploying every resource available, and are coordinating with numerous agencies as we continue to respond to these fires,” said Governor Gavin Newsom, declaring a state of emergency for all of California. “It is critical that people in evacuation zones heed the warnings from officials and first responders.”

The wind storm was expected to roll across the state, from north to south, over the coming days. PG&E has shut off power to 918,000 homes and businesses -- or about 2.7 million people -- in a bid to prevent its electrical lines from igniting fires. Edison International’s Southern California Edison utility has warned it may cut electricity to 162,000 customer accounts.“We are taking extreme precautions and making aggressive evacuation decisions based on the forecast and the fire behavior that is predicted,” Jonathan Cox, a division chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said at a media briefing Saturday night.

The Kincade fire, only 10% contained, has burned more than 30,000 acres of land. Weather may drive the fire toward Santa Rosa, a town of more than 175,000 residents. The area’s largest airport, near Santa Rosa, closed to commercial flights Saturday and remained shut Sunday.

Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick said that the evacuations are the largest ever conducted in his 26-year career at the sheriff’s office.

PG&E said it coordinated with authorities to make sure that its blackouts wouldn’t affect the evacuations. But lack of power may complicate the additional evacuation orders.

“Once we lose power, much of our technology starts to disappear, we could lose communication, we could lose cellphone towers, we have to revert back to some our more basic alert and warning,” Essick said at the press conference Saturday. “We lose street lights, we lose traffic control lights, so that adds a layer of complexity when we try to do an evacuation.”

PG&E had an equipment failure on a high-voltage transmission line just before the fire broke out in the area late Wednesday. It started even after the bankrupt utility owner began cutting power in the area to prevent its lines from sparking wildfires because of windy conditions.

State fire officials warned that the wind storm will make the fire erratic, and there’s potential for timber to fall across power lines and roads, raising the risk of more blazes igniting.

To contact the reporters on this story: David R. Baker in San Francisco at dbaker116@bloomberg.net;Mark Chediak in San Francisco at mchediak@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Lynn Doan at ldoan6@bloomberg.net, Kara Wetzel, Linus Chua

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