Tuesday 12 November 2019

Huge blaze threatens Californian wine region

Infuriated: Gavin Newsom has railed against power companies. Photo: Reuters/Stephen Lam/File Photo
Infuriated: Gavin Newsom has railed against power companies. Photo: Reuters/Stephen Lam/File Photo

Reis Thebault

A fast-moving wildfire, spurred by powerful winds, forced thousands of people to evacuate parts of Sonoma County in northern California - the rural wine region still recovering from a 2017 blaze.

Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), the state's largest utility, said a jumper on one of its transmission towers broke close to where officials say the fire started, near Geyserville.

Although PG&E cut power in the area on Wednesday amid dangerous weather conditions, stretches of the company's high voltage power lines were still operating in the area when the fire broke out, the utility said.

In the report it filed with the California Public Utilities Commission, PG&E said it became aware of the malfunction at 9.20pm local time on Wednesday. The fire began minutes later, according to California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

PG&E CEO Bill Johnson said the company is conducting an internal investigation, but said it has not accepted responsibility for the fire, adding that officials still don't know precisely how it started.

The fire spread rapidly. No injuries have been reported, but nearly 50 structures have been damaged or destroyed.

Meanwhile, 640km south, a fire burned through Canyon Country, in north-west Los Angeles County.

Forecasters expect conditions across California to get worse in the coming days, and PG&E warned even more blackouts will follow in a bid to prevent wildfires.

The company said the next round of outages could begin today and would be "on the magnitude" of those earlier this month, the most extensive planned power shutdown ever.

The Sonoma County Sheriff's Office ordered mandatory evacuations, including for the entire community of Geyserville, and shut down roads.

Gavin Newsom, a Democratic governor, railed against all three of the state's investor-owned power companies, including PG&E, which has already been forced into bankruptcy in the face of billions of dollars in liability claims from previous fires.

"I must confess, it is infuriating beyond words," Mr Newsom said, accusing the utilities of neglecting their infrastructure and leaving the state vulnerable to fires sparked by outmoded power lines.

"It's more than just climate change," Mr Newsom said. "It's about corporate greed meeting climate change, it's about decades of mismanagement."

He sent a letter to the CEOs of San Diego Gas & Electric Company, Edison International and PG&E demanding better communication about when utilities would implement precautionary shut-offs.

Forecasts in California have been ominous. The National Weather Service said "pockets of critical fire weather" were likely. (© Washington Post)

Irish Independent

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