A fast-moving fire in Sonoma County wine country, swept by extreme winds, exploded early Thursday morning and was continuing to grow as of Friday, forcing the tiny community of Geyserville to evacuate — and raising potentially damning new questions about the PG&E Corp. and its electrical equipment.
The Kincade Fire erupted late Wednesday near Geyersville in an area still dealing with memories of the October 2017 fires.
Cal Fire reported the Kincade Fire had reached 21,900 acres as of 7 a.m. Friday, up from 16,000 acres 12 hours earlier. Officials said 2,000 people remained under evacuation orders and the fire was still just 5 percent contained as of Friday morning.
As the winds tapered off, PG&E filed a report with the Public Utilities Commission saying a 230-kilovolt transmission tower malfunctioned near the ignition point. The utility added that a Cal Fire investigator found a broken jumper wire on the tower.
Cal Fire said it didn’t know the cause of the fire, but if the Kincade Fire turns out to be PG&E’s fault it could be devastating for the company. A faulty transmission tower was blamed for last November’s Camp Fire, which killed 85 people, destroyed most of Paradise and sent PG&E spiraling into bankruptcy court, where it’s struggling to fend off a hostile takeover attempt.
Bill Johnson, PG&E’s chief executive, said the problem with the Geyserville tower “does not tell us what caused the fire or where it started.” He said the 43-year-old tower had been inspected four times in the past two years — including an intensive examination as part of a ramped-up program launched by the company earlier this year — and had undergone “several minor maintenance things” recently.
“It appeared to be in excellent condition” at the latest inspection, he said.
PG&E cut power Wednesday afternoon to much of the area around Geyserville as a precaution against gusting winds, but said it didn’t cut power to the transmission lines. Those lines carry high-voltage electricity to broad areas, while distribution lines carry power at reduced voltage to individual homes and businesses. PG&E said the wind speed forecast for the area weren’t high enough to justify de-energizing the transmission lines under its “public safety power shutoff” protocols.
The distribution lines are supposed to be shut off when wind gusts top 40 mph, while the transmission lines can handle 55 mph gusts, he said. Distribution lines run closer to trees and are considered more likely to cause a fire, PG&E said.
Even as winds eased and the Kincade Fire’s progress slowed, officials remained on edge for a resumption of dangerous fire weather. Extremely high winds are forecast to blitz Sonoma County — and much of the rest of California — this weekend.
The weekend wind gusts are “expected to be the same or worse as what we just experienced,” said Mike Parkes, Cal Fire’s incident commander for the Kincade Fire, adding that a team of 1,300 firefighters was racing to tame the Kincaid Fire before the ferocious weather resumes.
“We are absolutely up against the clock,” he said.
Scott Strenfel, a PG&E meteorologist, said wind gusts in some higher elevations could hit 80 mph. The utility is expecting “the strongest offshore winds that we’ve seen in years,” he said.
Johnson said another big power shutoff, probably as big as the Oct. 9 blackout that darkened 780,000 homes and businesses, is likely. He said the shutoff will probably be longer than the Oct. 9 incident, which lasted three days. “There’s strong potential for a significant event,” he said.
The Kincade Fire ignited about 9:30 p.m. Wednesday near John Kincade Road northeast of Geyserville. After the fire jumped Highway 128 and headed west, Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick said nearly 2,000 people were ordered to evacuate, including the entire population of unincorporated Geyserville.
Although the Kincade Fire has destroyed 49 homes and other buildings, as well as vehicles, officials said they had no reports of deaths or injuries. And by mid-morning, the winds had tapered off and the fire’s progress slowed.
“There’s still a little bit of a breeze but nothing compared to what it was last night.,” said Amy Head, a battalion chief at Cal Fire.
Nevertheless, the fire remained just 5 percent contained as night fell, with fire officials saying steep terrain and other impediments were preventing them from getting a firmer handle on the situation. Fire crews build containment by digging trenches or fuel breaks around the perimeter of a fire.
“The winds have died down considerably but because of the terrains, the fuel conditions we’re still experiencing ... the containment is still very challenging,” Parkes said.
He had no information on the fire’s cause.
More wildfire weather coming
The fire erupted just hours after PG&E launched its second major deliberate blackout in two weeks.
The blackout zone covers a total of 179,000 households and businesses, but by Thursday night PG&E had restored power to 125,000 customers.
Many of those customers could be plunged right back into dark.
Forecasters said winds are expected to pick up again this weekend, prompting another blackout warning by PG&E. The utility, which was driven into bankruptcy by billions of dollars in damages from the 2017 and 2018 fires, has been aggressive about shutting off electricity this year when winds turn dangerous.
State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, tweeted that PG&E could shut power this weekend to more than 170,000 households and businesses in his district alone — an area that includes Marin, Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino counties. PG&E didn’t provide immediate confirmation of McGuire’s report.
Brendon Rubin-Oster, a forecaster with the National Weather Service, said winds could top 60 mph in some areas of Northern California beginning late Saturday.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see gusts in the 70 mph range ... in the canyons, the ranges, the mountain passes,” he said.
With the arrival of dangerous weather, fires popped up around the state. The Muir Fire in Marin County, although it had burned just 58 acres by late afternoon, forced the closure of a segment of Highway 1. The Tick Fire in northern Los Angeles County was at 850 acres and prompted evacuation orders. As Santa Ana winds kicked up, Southern California Edison cut power to 27,000 customers and said another 386,000 customers could lose power.
Echoes of the Tubbs Fire
As it was, the Kincade Fire brought back painful memories for Sonoma residents, coming two years after the Tubbs Fire and other fires ripped through Sonoma and Napa counties. More than 40 people died in what came to be known as the wine country fires.
“There is still a lot of trauma in Sonoma County from the fires of two years ago,” said David Rabbitt, the chair of the county Board of Supervisors.
Geyserville merchant Gurpreet Chauhan evacuated in October 2017 — and again early Thursday morning, alerted by sirens from sheriff’s patrol cars.
“You could see the fire on the mountains,” she said. “It was pretty bad.”
She and her family, who run Geyserville Market, returned to the store later Thursday to serve free coffee and water to firefighters. Chauhan hadn’t heard of evacuation orders being lifted “but they did not stop us, either, so I guess we’re OK.”
Other residents could be seen wandering around town despite the evacuation order. The air was smoky and light ash was falling on Geyserville Avenue.
Out in the countryside, there was no shortage of evidence of the fire. The burnt remains of a small sedan, its wheels melted off, rested next to a scorched tree on Geysers Road. The exterior walls of a ruined home sat curled like fruit rinds. Just a few feet away, a small span of power lines lay across the road, and a fence post nearby sizzled.
Despite the relative calm, however, law enforcement officials pleaded with residents to keep away from Geyserville. “This is not the time to stay, this is the time to go,” Essick said. He added the residents living just north of Healdsburg, eight miles south of Geyserville, were under an evacuation warning.
Robert Young Estate Winery in Geyserville lost a garage and a separate building where farm equipment was stored, but otherwise reported modest damage. “The fire came real close, burned a lot of grass all around,” said founder Fred Young. “A lot of pasture land burned.”
The Healdsburg Community Center was opened for evacuees but was reported at capacity by late afternoon. County officials directed evacuees to the Veterans Memorial Building in Santa Rosa. The Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa was also opened as an evacuation center, county officials said, and dozens of horses and donkeys were dropped off by their owners to be boarded at the fairgrounds’ stables. The fairgrounds boarded 500 animals during the 2017 fires.
The Bee’s Darrell Smith contributed to this story.