A fire rages in California, despite PG&E power shutoffs

PG&E has been shutting off power in California to avert wildfires, but a fire began on Thursday.

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The fire in the Sonoma County wine region north of San Francisco grew to more than 15 square miles before dawn and authorities ordered evacuations near the small community of Geyserville. There was no immediate information about what caused the fire, but wildfire risk was extremely high as humidity levels plunged and gusty winds up to 70 mph (113 kph) hit the region.

Amid a maelstrom of criticism for its handling of a public safety power shutoff two weeks ago for 2 million people, PG&E started, once again, cutting power in northern California counties to try to avoid potential wildfires — beginning at 2 p.m. on Wednesday.  This most recent shutoff was expected to affect almost 179,000 customers, 450,000 people and last for two days.

“We understand the hardship caused by these shutoffs,” Bill Johnson, Pacific Gas & Electric CEO, said on Wednesday.  “But we also understand the heartbreak and devastation caused by catastrophic wildfires.”

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James Gore, the Sonoma County Supervisor, said PG&E has been better at the notification part of these most recent blackouts.

“I am a big believer in shutdowns to prevent fires. But the thing that erodes public trust is when it doesn’t make sense,” he said. “You say, ‘God, I know if we can put a man on the moon ... we can manage a [power] grid.’ ”

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Beyond the fire issues in northern California, southern California had its own fire-related problems.  Mandatory evacuations were ordered Thursday morning for a portion of northern San Bernardino after a wind-driven brush fire ignited on Wednesday morning.  Hot and dry Santa Ana winds were expected to hit Southern California on Thursday and the Southern California Edison utility warned it might blackout 308,000 customers — potentially 750,000 people — depending on the forecast.  Also, the San Diego Gas & Electric utility warned of power shutoffs to about 24,000 customers.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.