California Fire Updates: Getty Fire Forces Evacuations in West Los Angeles as Kincade Fire Burns

Up and down the state, wildfires are driving residents from their homes. The fire threatens 90,000 buildings across an expanding evacuation zone. Published Oct. 28, 2019Updated Nov. 4, 2019 Sign up here for our California Today newsletter.VideotranscripttranscriptFirefighters Race to Contain Blazes Across StateA forecast of powerful winds and low humidity was expected to worsen conditions…

California Fire Updates: Getty Fire Forces Evacuations in West Los Angeles as Kincade Fire Burns

Up and down the state, wildfires are driving residents from their homes. The fire threatens 90,000 buildings across an expanding evacuation zone.

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Firefighters Race to Contain Blazes Across State

A forecast of powerful winds and low humidity was expected to worsen conditions for the fires that are burning in Northern and Southern California.

“People will not be returning to their homes this evening. You should prepare for that now, because those extreme wind events we’re going to see, maybe winds up — gusts as much as 70 miles an hour, and as we’ve seen in Northern California and experience in past fires here, those can pick up and transfer the fire miles away sometimes.” “It’s quite frustrating. I mean, all the resources and everything that’s going on is great. But it’s very frustrating not knowing, having any idea. But I guess in reality, you know, nobody can go up against Mother Nature.” “The forecast is on track. What that means is a challenging afternoon and evening of strong, dry, offshore winds that will impact the fire area. So we’re in this critical, really 24-hour window. We’re hopeful that the winds will ease off after midnight tonight.

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A forecast of powerful winds and low humidity was expected to worsen conditions for the fires that are burning in Northern and Southern California.CreditCredit…Eric Thayer for The New York Times

The worst kind of weather for wildfires — strong, gusty winds and very low humidity — will return on Tuesday after a relative respite on Monday, the National Weather Service said, raising the prospect of more fire outbreaks and rapid growth of the blazes that are already burning.

The agency has posted “red flag” warnings for most of Northern California and much of Southern California, taking effect at various times on Tuesday.

Winds gusts of up to 60 miles an hour could be expected beginning in the morning over a vast stretch of the state from the Sierras to the Pacific and from the southern fringes of the Bay Area north nearly to the Oregon border, except for coastal areas north of Sonoma County.

Similar conditions will develop Tuesday night from Santa Barbara south to the Mexican border and well inland, other than coastal areas south of Anaheim, and would persist into Thursday, forecasters said.

Red-flag weather has played an important role in driving the growth of the Kincade, Getty and other fires, and has prompted pre-emptive blackouts by utility companies hoping to keep wind-damaged power lines and equipment from touching off more blazes.

The power may still be off for millions of Californians when the next blackout comes, state officials said on Monday.

Roughly 587,000 Pacific Gas & Electric customers remained without power on Monday afternoon because of intentional blackouts meant to limit the risk of wildfires.

The company said it had restored service to an estimated 375,000 to 400,000 of the 970,000 affected customers. But it said many customers could remain without electricity for much of this week because more high winds are expected.

The utility said about 605,000 customers in 29 counties were at risk of losing power in advance of high winds on Tuesday and Wednesday. Each customer represents a household or a business, so the actual number of people affected has approached three million.

PG&E’s handling of the blackouts has been under scrutiny in recent weeks for technical and communications failures. On Monday, the state’s Public Utilities Commission ordered a review of the use and execution of the shut-off strategy.

California’s power shut-offs were intended to reduce the risk of fire. But they have also cut power to many cellphone towers, depriving many people in harm’s way of their main means of communication.

An estimated one-quarter of the 436 cellphone towers were without power in Sonoma County, where the Kincade fire forced 180,000 residents to evacuate over the weekend, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

More than half of the 280 towers in nearby Marin County were also out of service, the F.C.C. said. Most of the outages were related to pre-emptive power cuts imposed by Pacific Gas & Electric, the state’s largest utility.

“You don’t appreciate how essential cellphone service is until you lose it,” said Chris Ungson, deputy director for communications and water policy for the California Public Advocate’s Office, an independent agency within the state’s Public Utilities Commission. “It’s not just a matter of inconvenience; it’s a matter of public health and safety. It’s a lifeline to many, many people.”


Credit…Kyle Grillot for The New York Times

A brush fire that broke out early Monday morning on the western side of Los Angeles quickly consumed 600 acres, created gridlock on the 405, the nation’s busiest highway, and resulted in mandatory evacuations. But no fatalities were reported by midafternoon.

The fire, known as the Getty fire, forced officials to seal off main interchanges of the 405 by midmorning. Offramps through the Sepulveda Pass, near where the fire started, were closed.

The growing blaze caused the Los Angeles Unified School District, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District and many private schools to close before classes were to begin. The University of California, Los Angeles and Santa Monica College also canceled classes.

“This is a fire that quickly spread,” Mayor Eric M. Garcetti of Los Angeles said at a news conference shortly after 7 a.m. local time. “It is now over 500 acres, but we luckily had a lot of amazing heroes that were in our fire stations who rolled out immediately..” By noon, more than 1,100 firefighters from around the region were assigned to the fire, according to Ralph M. Terrazas, the chief of the Los Angeles Fire Department.

He said that at least five houses had been lost and that he expected that number to rise. The cause of the fire is under investigation.

The Getty fire, which was reported to emergency responders at 1:34 a.m. in a 911 call, prompted an emergency declaration from Mr. Garcetti. Neighborhoods covered by mandatory evacuation orders include Brentwood, Mountaingate and West Los Angeles. In all, more than 10,000 residential and commercial structures are in the evacuation zones.

Among the evacuees was the Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James. “Had to emergency evacuate my house and I’ve been driving around with my family trying to get rooms,” he said in a Twitter message.

Residents in the Bay Area and Los Angeles complained of poor air quality on Monday because of the smoke from wildfires. Experts say the best thing to do is to stay indoors with the windows closed and the air-conditioner set to recirculate. If you have to venture outside, a mask may help, but not just any mask — you need to have the right type, and use it properly. Read more from experts about protecting yourself from dirty air.

The Los Angeles Fire Department dispatched crews to protect the Getty Center, home to priceless artworks and a new exhibition of Edouard Manet’s paintings.

Capt. Erik Scott, a department spokesman, said the Getty Center, a billion-dollar complex in Los Angeles that houses an art museum with works by Rembrandt, van Gogh, Monet and Degas, was not immediately threatened by the blaze.

[ A 2017 fire near the Getty Center destroyed six homes and damaged many others. Read about it here and here.]

Peter Sanders, another spokesman for the department, said the center was surrounded by firefighters, as air tankers dropped red fire retardant on canyons to the west, ahead of the advancing fire, to create a barrier. “There’s no longer an imminent threat to the Getty Center,” he said.

Coffey Park, a neighborhood in Santa Rosa that was almost entirely destroyed in the Wine Country fires of two years ago, has been rebuilt, a remarkable transformation from field of rubble to idyllic California subdivision.

But now, with the front lines of the Kincade fire just a few miles away, residents live in a state of anxiety.

Samaz and Stefan Kiesbye moved back to the neighborhood in August after an arduous and costly rebuilding of their house.

A suitcase is packed, and sits by the door, awaiting the moment when they may have to flee once more. The couple have gathered their marriage certificate and a stack of other documents, and packed two paintings that they cherish.

“It feels like an incremental apocalypse,” Mr. Kiesbye said on Monday. “You can’t really sleep, because you are constantly getting up to read alerts. It’s so exhausting.”

When they fled in 2017, they had only minutes to gather their passports and some electronics. Everything they own now is new — and threatened once again by fire.

“It’s a constant struggle of being vigilant,” Mr. Kiesbye said. “It slowly eats away at you.”

A neighbor put a lawn sprinkler on his roof two days ago, and then left. It has been spraying water ever since.

A few doors down, another neighbor was in his driveway on Monday, warily surveying the smoke in the sky. “I’m moving to a snow cave in Montana if this place burns again,” he said.

The Kincade fire in the heart of Sonoma County, north of San Francisco, doubled in size in 24 hours and was 15 percent contained on Monday evening. The fire has now burned more than 74,000 acres, an area more than twice the size of the city of San Francisco, which covers 47 square miles.

More than 100 buildings have been destroyed by the fire, and 20 more damaged, according to Cal Fire, the state firefighting agency. The fire threatens 90,000 buildings across an evacuation zone that includes a warning, but not an order, for part of neighboring Napa County.

Some 4,150 firefighters were battling the blaze as of Monday afternoon, Cal Fire said. Two firefighters sustained burns, and one of them was airlifted to U.C. Davis Medical Center for treatment, the authorities said.

High winds over the weekend helped to drive the rapid growth of the fire, and more high winds are in the forecast for Tuesday night through Thursday, the National Weather Service said on Monday.

All 40 Sonoma County public school districts and eight independent charter schools in the county have closed through Tuesday because of the uncertain availability of power, evacuations of students and staff, fire threats and air quality concerns, county officials announced.

Classes were also canceled at the University of California, Berkeley; California State University Maritime Academy in Vallejo; Dominican University of California in San Rafael; Santa Rosa Junior College; and Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park.

Thomas Fuller, the San Francisco bureau chief of The New York Times, writes from his home in the East Bay. He lost power, along with hundreds of thousands of others.

At my house 25 miles from San Francisco in the hills of the East Bay, I woke up this morning at 4:30, walked with a flashlight across a spaghetti tangle of extension cords in the hallway and slipped into the backyard to turn on the generator. Nothing works in the house without it. Across Northern California on Monday around two million people were out of power. Only some of us were lucky enough to have a fallback.

As the Kincade fire in Wine Country forced the evacuation of nearly 200,000 people over the weekend, residents farther south scrambled to find gasoline. My neighbors messaged each other about which roads were safe to take to avoid the half-dozen spot fires that ignited in our area. In the town adjacent to mine, Lafayette, a fire destroyed a sports facility and threatened a hillside neighborhood. Another fire near the Carquinez Bridge shut down an interstate. At one point on Sunday, four fires were burning simultaneously within 20 miles of my house.

On Monday morning the smell of smoke filled every room of my house.

The ferocious winds that propelled the fires bent saplings in half and knocked down mature trees, blocking a road near my house and injuring several people at a farmers’ market in nearby Martinez.

I’ve noticed that neighbors are using the word apocalyptic much more casually these days. The winds, which in some cases reached hurricane-level speeds, added to a feeling of chaos and powerlessness. At night, neighborhoods without power look eerily uninhabited.

We have taken for granted the convenience of flipping on a light switch or of checking email. In the bedroom communities of San Francisco and Silicon Valley, the fires and blackouts have turned assumptions upside down. Pharmacies, supermarkets and restaurants are closed during the blackouts. On Sunday even the open space around us was closed — the regional park district announced it was off-limits because of extreme winds. We filled our bathtub after warnings that the water utility may need to shut down its pumps. One man said he had tried to go to six gas stations, all of them closed.

The extraordinary is becoming routine. Pacific Gas & Electric says it may shut off power again this week, starting on Tuesday when strong winds are expected to return.

Pacific Gas & Electric, whose equipment is suspected in the Kincade fire, told state regulators Monday that its lines, poles or transformers might have been involved in three other blazes.

Two of the fires occurred within about an hour of each other late Sunday afternoon in Lafayette, east of Berkeley. In one case, the company said, Contra Costa Fire Department workers told a PG&E employee at the site that they were looking into contact between a PG&E wire and a communications cable “as a potential ignition source.”

In the second fire, a PG&E worker found a fallen pole and transformer nearby, and county fire personnel said they were looking at the transformer as a possible cause of the blaze.

High winds were reported at the time, and local news reports said a tennis club had been heavily damaged in one of the fires, which prompted a brief evacuation.

In the third incident, on Sunday evening, a PG&E crew found a wire down in Milpitas, north of San Jose, near the site of a fire that damaged two houses, two cars and a shed. A Milpitas fire investigator told a PG&E worker that the downed wire could have started the fire and collected part of a conductor as evidence.

None of the fires occurred in areas where pre-emptive power cuts — known as public safety power shut-offs — had been imposed by PG&E. Nearly three million people were affected Sunday by the largest fire-prevention blackouts in California history.

PG&E officials said the company notified 500,000 customers in Northern California on Sunday that they might face a new round of power shut-offs on Tuesday, affecting many of the same areas that were blacked out over the weekend.

The new round would be the fourth time this month that the company has intentionally turned off electricity to large numbers of customers, some of whom had power for only a few hours between earlier blackouts.

[The New York Times has photographers on the ground documenting the Kincade fire and the struggle to contain it. Follow their work here. ]

Adam Sobel, an atmospheric scientist and director of the Initiative on Extreme Weather and Climate at Columbia University, gives an explanation:

This increasingly awful fall fire season follows hard on the previous two, in 2017 and 2018, both of which were worse than any in recent memory. Some of the same regions, and people, are being affected repeatedly in quick succession. Psychic trauma is surely compounded significantly for these residents, not to mention the firefighters on the front lines.

How should California residents think about the future, when the present is, suddenly and persistently, not only far outside their prior experience, but also, in its scale and velocity at least, beyond what science had predicted?

It’s an increasingly common experience, occurring with other kinds of events as well. Heavy rain events are becoming heavier around the world, but known climate trends can’t explain the repeated 500-or-more-year floods that Houston has seen in the last few years.

In the case of the increasingly frequent wildfire disasters in California, I argued the other day that they have multiple causes: poor maintenance by PG&E, expanded human settlement at the margins of fire-prone woodlands, and global warming. But I don’t think any of them explains either the suddenness or the persistence of the change that Californians have experienced in the last three years.

When it comes to the weather, and the climate, my views here are strongly informed by discussions with my colleague Park Williams, an expert on wildfire and climate whose research is directly relevant. That research shows that the area burned by fires each year in the summer months has increased drastically, and this is consistent with the influence expected from global warming.

But, as explained by Dr. Williams in his recent research article, and in The Times on Friday, the headline-making fires of the last three years have all occurred in fall. In that season, temperature has a role, but other factors are likely to be more important — first and foremost, the dry Diablo and Santa Ana winds.

Those are mainly fall and winter phenomena, and clearly critical factors in the recent and current fires. But these winds are actually projected to occur less frequently as the climate warms (with no clear trend yet apparent in the observations). So the fires may be attributable to weather, but the most critical aspect of the weather isn’t directly attributable to human activity — nor, as far as I can tell, to any other identifiable larger cause.

So what is going on?

My guess is that the best scientific answer goes something like this. The sparking might have gotten worse over time. But more important, in the last three years, it has encountered the hot, dry downslope winds markedly more often. And global warming is probably making those winds a little hotter, but the wind events themselves, the most important proximate causes, may well be only explainable, ultimately, as “natural variability.” That means they are inherently unpredictable. Bad luck, in other words. If this is true, it would suggest a decent chance that next year shouldn’t be as bad.

Or maybe the causes are in principle knowable, but current science just doesn’t know them. Maybe climate change is proceeding more rapidly and dangerously than we understand. But it’s good to understand what the limits of our knowledge are. That should keep us humble about our place on the earth.

Reporting was contributed by Neil Vigdor, Adeel Hassan, Vanessa Swales, Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, Ivan Penn, Carol Pogash, Brian X. Chen, Kevin McKenna, Jacey Fortin, Lauren Hepler and Mike Ives.

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