A power company in southern California says its equipment may have sparked a fast-moving wildfire that has forced evacuation orders for around 100,000 people and seriously injured two firefighters.
The Silverado fire sparked early in Orange county on Monday, quickly jumping a highway and exploding to 4,000 acres. The fire had doubled in size within two hours, with strong wind gusts pushing flames along brushy ridges in Silverado canyon toward thousands of homes. In total, 20,000 homes in the city of Irvine, 40 miles south-east of downtown Los Angeles, have been evacuated, according to firefighters.
In a report to the state Public Utilities Commission, Southern California Edison said it was investigating whether its electrical equipment caused the blaze. The brief report said it appeared that a “lashing wire” that tied a telecommunications line to a support cable may have struck a 12,000-volt conducting line above it, and an investigation was under way.
More than 90,000 people in the fire area were under evacuation orders. A fire in the Yorba Linda area had grown to nearly 4.7 square miles (12.2 square kilometers) and prompted the evacuation of at least 10,000 people, Associated Press reported, citing officials.
About 500 fire personnel were battling the main fire. Two have been injured critically with both second- and third-degree burns across more than 50% of their bodies, according to the Orange County Fire Authority.
“It’s one of the hardest things any fire chief can do, to report that one of their firefighter family members had been injured or worse,” said fire chief Brian Fennessy. “This is tough for me, tough for all my firefighters and certainly tough for the families of my two injured firefighters.”
The area of the wildfire is experiencing erratic wind speeds of 20 to 30mph, with some gusts up to 70mph. Captain Ben Gonzalez, the spokesman for the Orange County Fire Authority, described the winds as “swirling” and “unpredictable”. The wind whipped smoke and ash into frenzied funnels, flickering embers and flames wilder and more chaotic. Trees and vegetation bent and swayed dangerously with every gust.
The winds were so strong that firefighting planes, which dump water and retardant on flames from above, cannot fly , Fennessy said.
“This is a tough fire,” Fennessy said. “We’re experiencing very high winds, very low humidities. Our firefighters are some of the bravest in the world. This is a very hazardous job.”
Meanwhile, much of southern California remained under red flag warning through Tuesday with strong Santa Ana winds underway, according to the National Weather Service. Parts of Los Angeles and Ventura counties were also experiencing high winds, with a weather station east of Santa Clarita recording a gust of 96mph and a station in Angeles national forest recording one at 79mph.
Southern California Edison had said earlier it was considering safety outages for 71,000 customers in six counties starting Monday, with San Bernardino county potentially the most affected. Across the state, utility companies cut off power to about 300,000 customers in an effort to prevent the chance of their equipment sparking wildfires amid powerful winds and dangerously dry weather conditions.
An estimated 1 million Californians were expected to be without power on Monday.
Northern California saw gusty winds on Sunday night, with a weather station on Mount St Helena recording a hurricane-force gust of 89mph late on Sunday and sustained winds of 76mph. By early Monday, however, winds had calmed slightly, and no new major fires were reported.
Another round of winds was expected on Monday night, and a red flag warning for the East and North Bay mountain areas was extended through 5pm Tuesday.
“This event is by far the largest we’ve experienced this year, the most extreme weather,” said Aaron Johnson, the utility’s vice-president of wildfire safety and public engagement. “We’re trying to find ways to make the events less difficult.”
Crews were able to quickly contain small fires that broke out Sunday in Sonoma and Shasta counties. As of Monday morning, only two fires remained uncontained in Shasta county: the Point fire, which burned 275 acres, and the Dersch fire at 133 acres. Firefighters had both fires at 90% containment. The causes were under investigation.
This week’s weather conditions were similar to those during devastating fires in California’s wine country in 2017 and last year’s Kincade fire. Fire officials said PG&E transmission lines sparked that Sonoma county fire last October, which destroyed hundreds of homes and caused nearly 100,000 people to flee.
Los Angeles county urged residents to sign up for emergency notifications and prepare to evacuate, preferably arranging to stay with family or friends in less risky areas who are not suspected to have the coronavirus. Local fire officials boosted staffing as a precaution.
“The reality is come midnight and through Tuesday we’re going to be in the most significant red flag conditions we’ve had this year,” said Kevin McGowan, director of the county’s office of emergency management.
Scientists say climate change has made California much drier, meaning trees and other plants are more flammable. Traditionally October and November are the worst months for fires, but already this year the state has seen more than 8,600 wildfires that have scorched a record 6,400 square miles (16,576 sq km) and destroyed about 9,200 homes, businesses and other structures. There have been 31 deaths.
Many of this year’s devastating fires were started by thousands of dry lightning strikes, but some remain under investigation for potential electrical causes. While the biggest fires in California have been fully or significantly contained, more than 5,000 firefighters remain committed to 20 blazes, including a dozen major incidents, state fire officials said.
It is the fifth time this year that Pacific Gas & Electric, the nation’s largest utility, has cut power to customers in an effort to reduce the risk that downed or fouled power lines or other equipment could ignite a blaze. On Sunday, the utility shut off power to 225,000 customers in Northern California and later did the same for another 136,000 customers in a total of 36 counties.
PG&E officials said the planned outages are a safety measure and understood they burden residents, especially with many working from home and their children taking classes online because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Sheriff Kory Honea of Butte county said he was concerned about residents in foothill communities during the blackouts because cellular service can be spotty and it was the only way many can stay informed when the power is out.
“It is quite a strain on them to have to go through these over and over and over again,” he said.