California’s wildfires are forcing mandatory evacuations and massive blackouts

The Kincade fire in California consumes a building.
The Kincade fire in California consumes a building.
Image: Reuters/Stephen Lam
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Wildfires in California have prompted mandatory evacuations for 180,000 people and could leave millions without electricity.

State officials announced this morning that the Kincade fire, fueled by dry conditions and winds reaching 90 miles per hour (145 km/h), now covers over 120 sq miles (311 sq  km) and threatens nearby towns. The flames extend from the Pacific coastline to northeast Sonoma County, an outer part of the San Francisco Bay Area. (This reporter, based in Oakland, can feel the wind rattling his home, and the lights are flickering.)

The fires started near a town called Geyserville at around 9:30pm on Oct. 23 before growing rapidly overnight, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire). While the fire’s cause is unknown, electric utility PG&E said it became aware of a downed transmission line near its origin about 10 minutes earlier.

PG&E has become a focus of controversy. Cal Fire declared the utility responsible for last year’s Camp fire, which killed 85 civilians and destroyed over 18,000 homes, devastating the town of Paradise in particular. Facing $30 billion in liabilities, the company is trying to avoid future responsibilities in wildfires.

To that end it’s been shutting off residential power, though it faced criticism earlier this month for giving insufficient notice before leaving 700,000 homes without power. With the Kincade fire, PG&E issued blackout notices to 1 million customers within nine counties impacted in the Bay Area, warning that potentially 2.7 million people could be left without electricity.

Short-term fixes like massive shutdowns are PG&E’s only move at the moment. The energy provider expects infrastructure improvements to take at least four years and cost $28 billion. This is peak wildfire season, and unusually strong wind gusts, which can bring down transmission lines, have much of the Bay Area on edge. This morning, a spot brushfire broke out in Vallejo, 20 miles outside San Francisco, shutting down a nearby bridge.

Firefighters anticipate the strong winds will ease by Monday, making controlling the flames tenable. The fires are currently 10% contained, with 3,000 personnel and 68 crews working against the blazes.

California governor Gavin Newsom issued a state of emergency on Oct. 23 because of the Kincade fire and another in the Los Angeles area. He said in a news conference yesterday that “the next 72 hours are going to be challenging. I could sugarcoat it, but I will not.”