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Bay Area In 2010s: Decade Of Wildfires Changed Our Lives Forever

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- The looming threat of devastating wildfires became a common fear for Northern Californians in the decade as major blazes charred millions of acres, destroyed thousands of homes, claimed hundreds of lives and brought one of the nation's largest utilities to its knees.

Mother Nature triggered this fiery onslaught by serving up a toxic cocktail of a bone-dry drought, deadly infestation of disease that turned millions of trees into lifeless sticks of kindling and even more powerful windstorms.

For many of these Northern California blazes, the ignition point was traced to aging and failing equipment owned and maintained by Pacific Gas and Electric.

Former Gov. Jerry Brown warned Californians that the threat of raging wildfires was no short-term natural phenomena

"This is serious .... but this is only the beginning," he said in an interview. "This is only a taste of the horror and the terror that will occur in decades."

Nowhere is the impact of a decade of wildfires more evident than in Lake County. More than 50 percent of the county -- more than 450,000 acres -- have burned since 2012. The largest swath of destruction was caused by the deadly Mendocino Complex fire in July 2018.

As Bo Stover huddled in an evacuation center in 2018, he spoke the thoughts of many of those around him.

"I'm sick of all this," he told the Los Angeles Times. "I'm too old. I'm looking for peace in my life."

The Tubbs Fire was one of several that broke out in Fall of 2017. It ripped through parts of Napa, Sonoma, and Lake counties but inflicted its most devastating blow to the city of Santa Rosa.

It destroyed more than 5,643 structures -- nearly half of those homes in Santa Rosa -- by the time it was brought under control. At least 22 people were killed.

Coffey Park was once one of Santa Rosa's most picturesque neighborhoods and only now is showing signs of recovery as new homes replace those destroyed in the blaze.

Leslie Garnica was born and raised in Coffey Park. She told KPIX 5 in the days immediately after the fire that she liked to open her blinds and window so she could see the three palm trees in her front yard as she lay in bed and listened to music.

"This is all I've ever known, and it's kind of weird knowing that you have to start again, find something new," Garnica said. "This is what I'm used to. But I don't have it anymore."

While all wildfires are frightening, few matched the sheer horror of the Camp Fire which destroyed much of the town of Paradise in November of 2018. Sparked by PG&EN equipment, flames ripped through the town covering a football field every minute. The firestorm overwhelmed residents in their homes and cars as they attempted to flee.

Among those injured in the blaze was Bill Blevins, who spoke to CBS days after the fire as he was recovering in the UC Davis Medical Center Burn Center.

"The dreams that I've had since I've been here, my God, I've burnt so many times in a fire," he told CBS News. "The flames burnt my face and my hands. The flames coming across the road were like a blowtorch."

Before thousands of firefighters contained the blaze 150,000-acre had been burned, 88 people killed and thousands of homes and other structures destroyed.

The Carr Fire that tore through Redding featured another new weather phenomenon -- the firenado.

Like their counterparts in America's Tornado Alley, National Weather Service investigators came to Northern California to measure the wind generated during the height of the firestorm that ripped through Redding , killing six people and damaging hundreds of homes.

A NWS researcher combed through the wreckage left behind and determined a fire whirl -- commonly known as a fire tornado or firenado -- roared through the area between 7:30 p.m and 8 p.m. on July 26th.

It was packing 143 mph winds, turning heavy-duty high tension power line towers into twisted pieces of metal, uprooting trees and ripping the bark off other trees.

"These winds events, wind storms and tornado type behavior -- some of this is unprecedented," then Gov. Brown told reporters as he toured the wreckage.

The financial avalanche of lawsuits crushed PG&E. The company declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January as it faced up to $30 billion in damages from wildfires in 2017 and 2018 that were started by the company's electrical equipment.

It also added another layer of misery for its customers across Northern California -- the Public Safety Power Shutoff. In the fall of 2019, PG&E deployed a controversial practice of cutting off the electric power to millions of Northern Californians as a wildfire preventive action when Red Flag Fire warnings with high winds and dry conditions were forecast across the region.

The policy brought the ire of customers, politicians and state regulators.

"As it relates to PG&E, it's about dog-eats-dog capitalism meeting climate change," Gov. Gavin Newsom told reporters. "It's about corporate greed meeting climate change. It's about decades of mismanagement. It's about focusing on shareholders and dividends over you and members of the public."

As the decade came to a close, Mother Nature leveled one last cruel blow on Northern California. The Kincade Fire erupted northeast of Geyserville on October 23rd and subsequently burned 77,758 acres, destroyed or damaged over 120 buildings including dozens of homes before it was fully contained on November 6th.

Employing the lessons learned over the decade, Cal Fire and local officials quickly ordered 100s of thousands to evacuate their homes, employed thousands of firefighters and battle the blaze with the precision of generals involved in a war campaign. It was a massive fire, but no lives were lost.

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