California's biggest utility admitted its electrical equipment may have ignited a wildfire burning in wine country Friday, despite blackouts imposed across the region to prevent blazes. Meanwhile, a wind-whipped fire destroyed homes near Los Angeles. Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in both Sonoma and Los Angeles Counties due to the fires.
In Northern California, a blaze near the Sonoma Countyburned 49 buildings and tore through 21,000 acres, consuming vineyards and homes. About 2,000 people have been ordered to evacuate. As of 7 a.m. local time, the fire was 5% contained.
Overnight, the fire burned at a rate of 1,000 acres per hour, with winds reaching a maximum speed of 76 mph. The fire burned at least 25 square miles, whipped up by the strong winds that had prompted Pacific Gas & Electric to impose sweeping blackouts affecting a half-million people in Northern and Central California. Power was restored to all but approximately 1,000 customers by Friday evening, PG&E said.
The power shut-offs were imposed after PG&E electrical equipment was blamed for several blazes in recent years that killed scores of people and burned thousands of homes.
However, PG&E said Thursday it didn't de-energize a 230,000-volt transmission line near Geyserville that malfunctioned minutes before the fire erupted. The company reported finding a "broken jumper" wire on a transmission tower Wednesday night.
PG&E CEO Bill Johnson said it was too soon to know if the faulty equipment ignited the fire. He said the tower had been inspected four times in the past two years and appeared to have been in excellent condition.
In shutting off the electricity, PG&E cut power to the distribution lines that supply homes, but not to its long-distance transmission lines.
Governor Newsom spoke out against PG&E. "We should not have to be here," he said. "We will hold them to an account that they have not been held to in the past."
In Southern California, firefighters on the ground and in the air struggled to protect homes surrounded by trees and brush. In some places, they failed. As hot embers flew, subdivision homes and rural ranch properties were damaged or destroyed in the Canyon Country area of Santa Clarita and in nearby Castaic.
More than 40,000 people were evacuated in the Santa Clarita area north of Los Angeles as hot, dry Santa Ana winds howling at 50 mph drove the flames into neighborhoods. At least six homes were burned. No immediate injuries were reported.
Alejandro Corrales tearfully watched her home burn on a ridge in Canyon Country, taking with it her mother's ashes, other belongings and possibly a pen full of pet sheep.
"I'm literally seeing sticks and fire of what used to be our home," she told CBS Los Angeles.
"Everything in the house is gone," Corrales said. "The panels on one of the pens where we have some rescued sheep was too hot for my daughter to open, and so she couldn't let them out. ... So I'm probably sure that we lost them, too."
Some residents tried to fight the blaze with garden hoses. People rushed to rescue dozens of horses, donkeys, goats, a pig and an emu.
Officials said a firefighting helicopter was grounded after its windshield was damaged by a collision with a bird.
The high winds were expected to persist through Friday. Southern California Edison, which shut off electricity to more than 31,000 customers on Thursday, was considering additional power cuts to more than 386,000.
But forecasters say the worst is still ahead, predicting an unprecedented wind event Sunday and Monday with wind gusts up to 80 mph.