California's biggest utility admitted its electrical equipment may have ignited a ruinous wildfire spreading across the state's wine country Friday, despite blackouts imposed across the region to prevent blazes.
The disclosure came as firefighters simultaneously battled flames in both Northern and Southern California: the fire amid Sonoma County's vineyards, and a wind-whipped blaze that destroyed homes near Los Angeles.
The fire near the Northern California town of Geyserville burned at least 49 buildings and 34 square miles (65 square kilometers) and prompted evacuation orders for some 2,000 people.
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It was 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 most people by Thursday 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.
Source: PG&E PSPS data, U.S. Forest Service, Google Maps
Credit: Sean Myers/NBC Bay Area
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.
Meanwhile, more than 50,000 people were under evacuation orders in the Santa Clarita area north of Los Angeles as hot, dry Santa Ana winds howling at up to 50 mph (80 kph) drove the flames into neighborhoods. At least six homes were burned. No immediate injuries were reported.
Firefighters on the ground and in the air struggled to protect homes surrounded by trees and brush as the wind-driven fire there grew to 4,300 acres (1,740 hectares).
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.
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 KCBS-TV.
"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.
High winds were expected to continue through the morning and taper off by late afternoon. 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.
The huge Los Angeles school district closed all its schools in the San Fernando Valley, citing poor air quality and other safety concerns.
While the high winds in Northern California had died down by Friday, they were expected to pick up over the weekend, with gusts of 40 to 60 mph in many places, and PG&E warned it may black out an even larger region.
PG&E chief meteorologist Scott Strenfel said Northern California could be in for the strongest offshore winds in years.
Associated Press writers Janie Har, Juliet Williams, John Antczak and Christopher Weber contributed to this report.