CLICK HERE if you are having a problem viewing the photos or video on a mobile device
GEYSERVILLE — A wind-driven wildfire that erupted overnight forced some 2,000 people to flee their homes in this Wine Country town Thursday even as many residents had their electricity shut off to avoid power equipment sparking an inferno.
Dry, gale-force fall winds like those that have fanned deadly blazes in recent years whipped the Kincade Fire, which ignited in Sonoma County around 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, into 10,000 acres of roaring flame.
On Thursday afternoon, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. revealed that one of its transmission towers was damaged near where the fire reportedly began — raising questions about how effective the utility’s outages are at averting wildfires.
The blaze was still at zero percent containment by Thursday afternoon, as hundreds of firefighters converged and the skies were covered by thick smoke.
“You could see the trees going up like candles,” said Sean Olhan, who lives with his 91-year-old mother on Red Winery Road in Alexander Valley. “And you could see firestorm swirls.”
Firefighters banged on Olhan’s door at 5:30 a.m., telling them to leave in the midst of the “phenomenal” wind storm.
Power outages add to fear
What compounded the fear and uncertainty in this region accustomed to packing bags for quick escapes on windy October nights was a new ingredient — PG&E had cut power to thousands of homes as a precaution.
The company began cutting power to 178,000 households and businesses in 15 counties Wednesday afternoon amid red-flag warnings of wildfire risk. Among the most affected was Sonoma County, where memories of the deadly 2017 Wine Country wildfires are still painfully fresh.
It was the embattled utility’s second-largest power shutoff aimed at reducing wildfire risk, coming just two weeks after it turned off some 735,000 customers for hours to days, many in the same areas. PG&E warned that more massive outages in the Bay Area and elsewhere in Northern California could come this weekend when dry, windy gusts are expected to resume.
But even with the safety shutoffs, the flames came. In addition to the Kincade Fire, the Muir Fire near Stinson Beach was burning about 50 acres Thursday in Marin County. In Santa Rosa, a blaze that began in Annadel State Park was holding at about three acres, Santa Rosa Fire Department officials said. In Butte County, the Nelson Fire charred 75 acres.
What started the fire?
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection — Cal Fire — was investigating what might have sparked the Kincade Fire.
That fire erupted around The Geysers, the world’s largest complex of geothermal power plants, where steam from deep in the ground has been tapped for nearly a century to produce electricity.
A Sonoma County Fire and Cal Fire dispatcher alerted crews around 9:27 p.m. Wednesday to “a vegetation fire reported in The Geysers,” adding “also possible power lines down in the area — all units acknowledge life safety hazard.”
PG&E said that it had found damage on a transmission tower near where the fire started — a tower that had not been turned off during the power outages.
In a report filed to the California Public Utilities Commission on Thursday, the utility said it “became aware of a Transmission level outage” on a 230,000-volt power line at 9:20 p.m. Wednesday night — minutes before the first reports of a fire.
On Thursday morning, a PG&E employee reported that firefighters had “taped off the area around the base of” a transmission tower, which had a broken jumper, the report said.
The one-paragraph-long report makes no claim of how the transmission line was damaged or whether it might have sparked the fire.
“We’re continuing to investigate” the cause of the fire, PG&E CEO Bill Johnson told reporters on Thursday evening. The tower in question was 43 years old — not that old by industry standards — and had been inspected multiple times in recent years, he said, adding that it “appears to have been in excellent condition.”
Johnson said that while lower-voltage distribution lines in the area where the fire started had been turned off Wednesday night, the utility decided to keep the transmission line on, following protocols based on the wind speeds and weather forecasts.
PG&E equipment has been blamed for sparking a host of recent devastating wildfires, including many that roared through the Wine Country in 2017 and the Camp Fire that destroyed Paradise east of Chico last year, the state’s deadliest and most destructive.
Facing multi-billion dollar liability claims, PG&E in January filed for bankruptcy protection. PG&E began initiating “public safety power shutoffs” last year, something San Diego Gas and Electric has used effectively to reduce wildfire danger since the deadly 2007 Witch Fire. PG&E was criticized for its decision not to de-energize high-voltage lines near Paradise during strong fall winds that sparked the Camp Fire.
Calpine, a Houston-based energy company and the largest geothermal power producer in the U.S., owns and operates 13 power plants at The Geysers, including those fire dispatchers identified as near the origin of the fire.
Calpine spokesman Brett Kerr said that “due to the wind conditions, we had de-energized our local power line system before the fire started.”
“We do not believe our facilities caused the fire,” Kerr said, but added: “There are power lines operated by third parties across The Geysers.”
“The Kincade Fire flashed through a portion of our Geysers geothermal facilities late yesterday,” Kerr said. “We believe there is relatively minor damage to our facilities and further threat has passed.”
No injuries have been reported from the Kincade Fire, but at least two structures were destroyed, Cal Fire said early Thursday.
At Geyser and Red Winery roads, the burned-out remnants of a home’s washer and dryer sat next to an abandoned sedan, while patchy embers crackled on both sides of the road.
More than 500 firefighters have been dispatched to fight the blaze. Cal Fire Chief Mike Parkes said crews are “very concerned” about the windy weather forecasts for the weekend.
Wineries on alert
Flames appeared on Thursday to be moving toward the winery-lined Alexander Valley area south of Highway 128, Cal Fire spokesman Will Powers said. Unpredictable winds meant that the fire has northern, southern and western legs.
“The steep terrain coupled with the winds — it’s made the firefight definitely tough,” Powers said. “In a very complex, dynamic situation like this, tactics are re-evaluated minute-by-minute.”
While up to 2,000 people safely left their homes early Thursday, between 30 and 50 residents refused to leave, Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Sgt. Juan Valencia said. The Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa and the Healdsburg Community Center at 1557 Healdsburg Ave. were opened as evacuation centers.
The sheriff’s office also warned residents in northern unincorporated Healdsburg to be ready to evacuate. Because of the nearby power shutoffs, authorities went door-to-door knocking at people’s homes to inform them of the evacuations, Valencia said.
For some, the Kincade Fire has already served as a harsh reminder of previous blazes that terrorized the region.
Kaylynn Reeb, 71, and her husband, William Boutin, 73, lost their home in the 2017 Pocket Fire and think it may be time now to move. They got an evacuation warning on Wednesday night, so they shepherded their two miniature schnauzers, Watson and Ranger, into the RV they had bought after the Pocket Fire left them homeless and drove to the Healdsburg Community Center.
The stress of trying to rebuild and the now seemingly ever-present threat of fire has worn them down, and they’re finally thinking about moving to the Central Valley after 40 years here.
“At least we’re alive,” Reeb said.
Staff writers George Kelly, Casey Tolan and Jason Green contributed to this report.
We are providing free access to this article. Please consider supporting local journalism like this by purchasing a subscription. Click here for our 99-cent, 1-month trial offer.
Map shows evacuation area in red and PG&E power shutdown approximate boundary in gray. Click here if you can’t see the map above on your mobile device.