Update: Yolo wildfire grows slightly; PG&E restores power in Northern California

The grim start to Northern California’s fire season continued Sunday as the Sand Fire in Yolo County grew slightly overnight, several smaller fires were still burning and a deliberate “wildfire prevention” blackout engineered by PG&E was restored late in the day across fire-weary Paradise and other communities in Butte and Yuba counties.

The Sand Fire, which began Saturday afternoon near Rumsey on brush-covered slopes, remained the most closely-watched fire Sunday. It grew to 2,200 acres by late Sunday and was 20 percent contained, Cal Fire reported.

About 125 area residents have been evacuated, said Cal Fire spokesman Bruce Lang, and Caltrans reported that Highway 16 was closed in both directions between Guinda and Highway 20.

As temperatures hit the low 90s Sunday afternoon, a relentless stream of helicopters dropped retardant into steep ravine areas north of Guinda, a tiny community near Rumsey. Paul Muller, a rancher who farms in the area, said he’d heard that some farm outbuildings in Rumsey burned in the fire overnight, but otherwise the town was safe. Cal Fire confirmed seven buildings had been destroyed.

“Not as crazy as it could have been,” Muller said.

But the ever-increasing fire threat — what some California officials have called the new normal — was on his mind as he looked at the smoke. “Been a wild couple of years here in California,” he said. He credited Cal Fire crews with keeping the fire from spreading out of control.

John Pisahl, who lives on a two-acre spread near the fire zone, said he disregarded the evacuation order because he felt he needed to defend his property.

“This is my home, man,” he said. “I’m not going to leave and let some ember burn my house down.” He hosed down his yard to help buffer it from the fire, and said the flames appeared more ominous Saturday evening than they did Sunday.

“It was just lit up,” he said, gesturing toward the hills to the north.

An evacuation center was set up at the Boy Scout Cabin in Esparto, 16980 Yolo Ave., but the shelter was empty.

Bay Area residents reported on social media that smoke from the Sand Fire was beginning to affect air quality around San Francisco.

Cal Fire said 627 firefighters, backed by four helicopters, were on the scene, with a tough day expected. “It’s supposed to be hot,” Lang said. “Red flag” alerts were still in effect as far south as Los Banos for the rest of the day, with wind gusts of 30 mph expected in lower elevations and 45 mph in the foothills, according to the National Weather Service.

Area residents said the fire’s quick spread Saturday took them by surprise.

“We noticed the fire about 3:15 p.m., and it came right down by my property,” said Gage Hutchens, who said his is the last property on the north edge of town. “It came by and gave us a glancing blow.”

Meanwhile, the Sutter County Sheriff’s Department said the West Butte Fire, which broke out Saturday afternoon, was up to 1,000 acres on Sunday with 60 percent containment. The department said there were “no structures at risk.”

Evacuation orders issued Saturday for the Levee Fire east of Marysville were lifted, according to various media reports.

In Butte and Yuba counties, about 20,000 customers of PG&E Corp. were blacked out in a deliberate outage late Saturday to lessen fire risk.

By Sunday evening, PG&E said it had restored service to “all customers who could receive power” in parts of Yuba and Butte counties, according to a news release. In all, PG&E said nearly 21,000 customers had been affected by the action.

The company said in restoring power along 800 miles of line to the severed areas, its crews found “instances of damage to de-energized equipment caused by the extreme weather event and are making necessary repairs” before power flowed again.

Among those communities hit by the blackout was Paradise, which was largely destroyed by the Camp Fire last November in the deadliest fire in California history. While much of the town’s housing stock was destroyed, several thousand people have moved back home.

Peggy Mattier, one of those who’ve returned home, said she was “kind of split” about PG&E’s decision to cut power in Paradise.

“I understand that they’re kind of scared, they don’t want to start another fire,” she said in a phone interview from her home on the east side of Paradise. “But it feels kind of retaliatory ... They’re punishing us for complaining.”

PG&E said it is using deliberate blackouts as “a last resort,” but the utility is under immense pressure to prevent any more big fires. An estimated $30 billion in wildfire liabilities from the 2017 and 2018 drove PG&E into Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January.

The utility said it opened one of its planned community assistance centers Sunday to help residents affected by the blackouts. The centers had bottled water, air conditioning and power for charging cell phones. The center, at Harrison Stadium in Oroville, would be closed Monday, PG&E said.

PG&E said it improved weather conditions allowed them to keep the lights on in parts of El Dorado, Placer and Nevada counties that were part of the year’s first shutoff plan.

An earlier blackout, imposed in portions of Yolo, Napa and Solano counties, ended Saturday afternoon. It cut power to 1,700 customers, which the utility reported it had restored by that evening.

Dale Kasler covers climate change, the environment, economics and the convoluted world of California water. He also covers major enterprise stories for McClatchy’s Western newspapers. He joined The Bee in 1996 from the Des Moines Register and graduated from Northwestern University.
Meghan Bobrowsky, from Scripps College, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee, focusing on breaking news and school funding. She grew up in nearby Davis.