Thousands Flee as Wind-Driven Wildfires Scorch California

Firefighters try to save a home on Tigertail Road from the Getty fire on Monday in Los Angeles, Calif. (AP Photo/ Christian Monterrosa)

(CN) – After a hellish weekend featuring hurricane-force winds that drove an uncontrolled wildfire deeper into California’s Wine Country and whipped up a series of smaller blazes that trapped motorists on major freeways, another fire threatening multimillion-dollar homes and the Getty Center arts complex sparked Monday morning in Los Angeles.

While an estimated 200,000 people fled their homes in Sonoma County due to the Kincade Fire in Northern California – which has charred over 66,000 acres in five days and is just 5% contained – the Getty Fire broke out at about 1:30 a.m. Monday and sent thousands of Los Angeles residents fleeing.

People filmed their chilling escapes down the 405 Freeway as they fled the latest fire in bone-dry California. The Getty Fire threatens homes of celebrities like NBA superstar LeBron James in the Pacific Palisades and Brentwood neighborhoods west of downtown.

In a press conference Monday, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti confirmed a few homes have been destroyed. He advised residents to leave their homes if they’re given evacuation orders.

“Do not wait. Do not get your own hoses. Leave it to the professionals,” said Garcetti.

“Make sure if you have evacuation notice and you’re listening to me now and you’re still in your home – leave. Leave your home. We’ve seen fires and tragedies where people have believed they can stay in place. Where they thought they could fight the fire and be a hero themselves,” he continued.

In addition to mandatory evacuations, public schools in Santa Monica and Malibu are closed and UCLA announced it was canceling classes on Monday. Fire officials said the blaze started overnight amid a Santa Ana wind event in the Los Angeles County mountains that dropped humidity levels to 5% in some neighborhoods.

The Getty Center features a wide collection of art from Roman antiquities, Italian Renaissance and 11th century sacred manuscripts, but reports place the fire north of the campus.

In 2018, the Woolsey Fire charred nearly 97,000 acres across two counties in the vicinity of Monday’s wildfire.

Most of California has seen no rain during the entire month of October, preserving dry grass and tinder well into fall and leading to red-flag fire warnings from San Diego north to the Oregon border. To make matters worse, a series of windstorms have battered the state over the last several weeks, prompting the state’s largest utility to pre-emptively cut power.

The Kincade Fire approaches a herd of alpacas in Sonoma County, Calif., on Sunday. (AP Photo/Ethan Swope)

Nearly 3 million Californians again lost power over the weekend, forcing many to stay at community centers nowhere near active wildfires in order to charge medical devices that rely on electricity. While winds died down in Northern California on Monday, Pacific Gas & Electric warned customers in 32 counties the power may be shut off for the third time in a week due to high winds in the forecast this week.

Another round of power shutoffs is certain to roil state leaders, who have been extremely critical of PG&E’s willingness to leave Californians in the dark when the winds pick up.

Last week Gov. Gavin Newsom excoriated the state’s largest utility provider after the company filed a report stating it believes a transmission equipment failure may have caused the Kincade Fire. PG&E did cut power to many distribution lines in the area ahead of the fire but said its transmission lines remained energized.

The utility said Monday its equipment may have also caused two fires in the East Bay city of Lafayette on Sunday afternoon.

Newsom, the former mayor of San Francisco where PG&E’s headquarters is located, told Bloomberg News on Sunday that now is the time to act for anyone interested in buying out the embattled utility. He hinted billionaire Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway could be well positioned to buy out the utility, which is fighting bankruptcy and billions in claims from past wildfire victims.

One congressman from California’s Central Valley wants to make it illegal for utilities to pay executive bonuses if they’ve failed to invest in climate-resilient infrastructure.

Representative Josh Harder said Monday he’ll introduce the No Bonuses During Blackouts Act, which would revive the corporate alternative minimum tax for utilities that pay their executives bonuses but don’t make improvements to their grids so that wildfires don’t break out every time the wind blows.

PG&E has not paid federal income taxes in the past decade, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy – despite over $2 billion in income in 2017. Its top eight executives received over $25 million in bonuses in 2018, Harder said, and the company spent about $10 million on lobbying last year.

“We cannot accept blackouts as the new normal. Obviously, weather events are to blame here, but so are the executives at PG&E who have opted to give themselves huge bonuses and pay millions to lobbyists instead of making their infrastructure climate-resilient,” the freshman Democrat said in a statement Monday.

While millions were without power and evacuees were huddling in high school gymnasiums and community centers, crews fighting the Kincade Fire saw hurricane force winds whip the blaze on Saturday and Sunday. The National Weather Service says a 102 mph gust was recorded in the hills near the fire, which has doubled in size over the past few days.

Amazingly, crews have been able to keep the largest blaze currently burning in the state from reaching the evacuated cities of Healdsburg and Windsor. According to state officials, the blaze has burned 96 structures – though more than 70,000 homes remain threatened. More than 4,000 firefighters have been assigned to the blaze, including crews from states like Oregon, Nevada and Montana.

High winds also whipped up grass fires Sunday in the San Francisco Bay Area and Sacramento, temporarily closing down Interstates 80 and 5, the state’s main west-east and north-south arteries.

Gov. Newsom, who has declared a statewide emergency due to the wildfires, said Monday during a media briefing that firefighters extinguished 330 different fires over the past 20 hours. He thanked emergency personnel for their work over the past weekend and reminded residents that California is just entering the height of its notorious wildfire season.

“This is for us, peak fire season. I would remind folks that last year, the Camp Fire and Woolsey Fire both in Northern California and Southern California, they occurred in the first week or so of November,” Newsom said.

Over the past decade, California has seen half of the state’s 10 largest wildfires and seven of its most destructive blazes. And a study published in July 2019 puts the blame largely on human-caused climate change.

Since 1972, the acreage burned by wildfires in California every year has increased fivefold – while the size of the average blaze has grown by an astounding 800%. The reason? Average summer temperatures across Northern California have risen by about 2.5 degrees since the early 1970s, according to the study.

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