Wildfires force evacuations in California amid power outages


Despite an unprecedented effort to prevent wildfires, at least three of them erupted in Southern California on Thursday fueled by strong winds and dry conditions. At least one of the blazes was forcing evacuations around Los Angeles by early Friday morning.

Fifty miles east of Los Angeles, CBS News correspondent Jonathan Vigliotti said several homes began burning just as the power company was turning off the electricity in the area in an effort to prevent sparking a fire. Reports said one fire was near downed power lines in the city of Fontana.

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Southern California Edison turned off electricity to about 20,000 people in Los Angeles, Ventura, San Bernardino and Kern counties but warned that thousands more could lose service as Santa Ana winds gained strength. 

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L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti confirmed evacuation orders for some residents after the high winds pushed the Saddleridge fire across two freeways and into neighborhoods.

Winds gusted dangerously as forecast before calming in Northern California, where Pacific Gas & Electric faced hostility and second-guessing over its widespread rolling blackouts.

Gov. Gavin Newsom criticized PG&E and ordinary customers complained about the inconveniences caused by the unprecedented blackouts that began midweek, with many wondering: Did the utility go too far in its attempt to ward off more deadly fires? Could it have been more targeted in deciding whose electricity was turned off and when?

PG&E, though, suggested it was already seeing the wisdom of its decision borne out as gusts topping 77 mph raked the San Francisco Bay Area amid a bout of dry, windy weather.

“We have found multiple cases of damage or hazards” caused by heavy winds, including fallen branches that came in contact with overhead lines, said Sumeet Singh, a vice president for the utility. “If they were energized, they could’ve ignited.”

Because of the dangerous weather in the forecast, PG&E cut power Wednesday to an estimated 2 million people in an area that spanned the San Francisco Bay Area, the wine country north of San Francisco, the agricultural Central Valley and the Sierra Nevada foothills. By Thursday evening, the weather had eased and the number of people in the dark was down to about 510,000. 

Residents watch a brushfire in the Santa Monica Mountains in Newbury Park, Calif., Oct. 10, 2019. AP

PG&E CEO Bill Johnson didn’t respond to Newsom’s criticisms but promised if future wind events require similar shutoffs, the utility will “do better” when it comes to communicating with customers. It’s unacceptable that its websites crashed, maps were inconsistent and call centers were overloaded, Johnson said.

“We were not adequately prepared,” he said. 

Southern California utilities had been hesitating to shut down electric grids on a massive scale in an effort to stem a customer backlash.

As Vigliotti reported, figuring out where to cut power has not been a perfect science. The power was left on in one San Jose neighborhood until high winds knocked down a line sparking a small fire. Neighbors arrived at the scene first, dousing the flames and saving homes.