With ferocious winds driving multiple wildfires through bone-dry vegetation and nearly 200,000 people ordered to leave their homes, California’s governor on Sunday declared a statewide emergency.
Meanwhile, millions of residents remained without power after the state’s largest utility cut electricity as a precaution to prevent more areas from igniting.
California Governor Gavin Newsom said in a statement that officials were deploying “every resource available” to respond to the wildfires, including a large blaze in northern California’s wine country powered by gusts that reached more than 164kph.
California Fire officials said that the fire had grown to burn more than 220km2, while containment had dropped to 5 percent.
At least 94 structures have been destroyed, they said.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, two grass fires briefly halted traffic on an Interstate bridge. The flames came dangerously close to homes in Vallejo. Another grass fire closed a stretch of interstate that cut through the state capital as smoke obstructed drivers.
In the south, a wildfire in the Santa Clarita area near Los Angeles destroyed 18 structures. As of Sunday night, the Tick Fire was 70 percent contained.
The biggest evacuation was in Northern California’s Sonoma County, where 180,000 people were told to pack up and leave, many in the middle of the night.
To prevent its power lines from sparking in the high winds and setting off more blazes, Pacific Gas & Electric said that preventative shut-offs affected 965,000 customers and another 100,000 lost electricity because of strong gusts, bringing the number of residents who experienced blackouts to nearly 2.7 million people.
Pacific Gas & Electric officials said they were expecting strong winds to whip up again today and that they have notified 500,000 customers — or more than 1 million people — that they are likely to have their power turned off for the third time in a week.
Some of those people might not have their power restored from the current outage before the next major shutdown, which would leave them without electricity for five days or longer, said Mark Quinlan, the company’s emergency preparedness and response director.
The fear that the winds could blow embers and spread fire across a major highway prompted authorities to expand evacuation orders that covered parts of Santa Rosa, a city of 175,000 that was devastated by a wildfire two years ago.
“This is the largest evacuation that any of us ... can remember,” the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office tweeted. “Take care of each other.”
Hundreds of people arrived at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa by Sunday. Some came from senior care facilities. More than 300 people slept inside an auditorium filled with cots and wheeled beds. Scores of others stayed in a separate building with their pets.
Among them was Maribel Cruz, 19, who packed up her dog, four cats and fish as soon as she was told to flee her trailer in the town of Windsor, about 97km north of San Francisco. She also grabbed a neighbor’s cat.
“I’m just nervous, since I grew up in Windsor,” she said. “I’m hoping the wind cooperates.”
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