SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Pacific Gas & Electric began shutting off power to about 25,000 customers in central and northern California Monday and Southern California Edison warned it may do the same for 9,000 of its customers as high winds toppled trees, downed power lines and ignited at least one of several fires that forced people to flee from their homes.
At least a half dozen small fires broke out across the state by late afternoon, challenging firefighters as they tried to contain the blazes amid the blustering wind.
West of Santa Barbara, authorities ordered the mandatory evacuation of campsites and ranches near Refugio State Beach as winds threaten to push a fire that started in Los Padres National Forest toward the coast, U.S. Forest Service spokesman Andrew Madsen said.
Water-dropping aircraft were working to contain the fire because it was burning in rugged terrain.
In the San Joaquin Valley, a grass fire north of Madera prompted evacuations east of State Route 99. Meanwhile, firefighters in Fresno rescued three people trapped in their home after a tree fell onto it.
Forecasters issued a red flag warning for extreme fire danger as winds gusted up to 55 mph (89 kph) in mountains and 25 to 45 mph (39 to 72 kph) in valleys. The warning extends until late Tuesday. The strongest winds are expected most of Monday, said Hannah Chandler-Cooley, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sacramento.
The planned outages are necessary because high winds, combined with low humidity and drought-ravaged vegetation, could raise the risk of trees falling on power lines and spark a fast-spreading wildfire, PG&E said in a statement. Heat waves and historic drought tied to climate change have made wildfires harder to fight in California and the rest of the U.S. West.
On the Central Coast, a tree fell onto power lines at Hearst San Simeon State Park, sparking a small fire in the brush, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection tweeted.
Winds were expected to pick up Monday afternoon to evening in Southern California, with projected gusts of 50 to 70 mph (80 to 113 kph). SoCal Edison said it may turn off power to customers in parts of Kern, Ventura and northern Los Angeles counties to reduce the threat of wildfires.
The National Weather Service said blowing dust was widespread from the Sacramento Valley, across the San Joaquin Valley and into the high desert Antelope Valley north of Los Angeles. Caltrans said sections of State Route 138 near the Antelope Valley city of Lancaster and State Route 14 were shut down because of the dust storm and several overturned trucks blocking the roadway.
Strong winds knocked down a tree, destroying three parked cars and damaging a home in the coastal town of El Granada, in San Mateo County, CalFire said.
No one was injured, but photos from the scene showed the tree also took down power lines.
PG&E said it expects to begin restoring power Tuesday afternoon.
The utility began intentionally shutting off power in the fall of 2019 to prevent wildfires, after an investigation determined the Camp Fire that wiped out most of the town of Paradise was sparked by its equipment. The company filed for bankruptcy and pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter related to the 2018 fire.
PG&E also faces numerous criminal charges for fires caused by its fraying equipment, including involuntary manslaughter charges filed last month in connection to a wildfire near the city of Redding last year that killed four people.