California braces for more fires, blackouts as part of state's new 'normal'

Firefighters across the state were racing to battle blazes ignited by an earlier round of powerful winds.

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By Tim Stelloh

Millions of fire-wary Californians prepared for more howling winds, destructive wildfires and rolling blackouts as firefighters across the state raced to battle blazes sparked by earlier blasts of hot, dry air.

Residents in Northern California were being buffeted by another round of roaring winds on Tuesday afternoon, while the National Weather Service in San Diego said the southern region could experience its strongest winds of the season Tuesday night.

The state's largest utility, Pacific Gas & Electric Corp., or PG&E, began shutting off power to about 600,000 customers on Tuesday morning — the fourth massive round of rolling blackouts in Northern California in less than a month.

On Monday afternoon, PG&E began turning the lights back on for some of the more than 300,000 customers whose power was cut off in the third blackout over the weekend, saying about 57 percent were back up and running on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people remained under evacuation orders in Sonoma County, north of San Francisco. By Tuesday afternoon, the Kincade fire had scorched 74,000 acres, destroyed about 60 homes and sent smoke hovering across the San Francisco Bay Area. Firefighters reported that it was at 15 percent containment

And in Southern California, more than 1,000 firefighters were fighting flames that erupted overnight, temporarily shutting down a major interstate in northern Los Angeles County and threatening more than 10,000 buildings.

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"This, unfortunately, is now California"s normal," said Capt. Scott McLean of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Sixteen significant blazes were burning across the state, McLean said. Firefighters were responding to an average of 170 fires a week, with of them smaller than 10 acres, he said.

There was a sliver of good news: No deaths had been reported, although at least two firefighters have been injured.

At an evacuation center in Napa County, Francisco Alvarado, 15, told NBC Bay Area that this was the second time in as many years that he'd had to flee his home. Two years ago, the Tubbs fire roared across the region, killing 22 people and devastating neighborhoods in the city of Santa Rosa.

"I'm pretty mad that we have to keep evacuating," he said. "I just want to be home."

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Among those forced to evacuate: Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James, who sought safety with his family in the middle of the night.

"Man these LA [fires] aren't no joke," James tweeted at 3:53 a.m. Monday. "Had to emergency evacuate my house and I've been driving around with my family trying to get rooms. No luck so far!"

As residents waited to have their power turned restored — or anticipated the next blackout — Gov. Gavon Newsom once again slammed PG&E for its preventive shutdowns, saying he wanted to see a "total reform" of the so-called public safety power shutoffs.

"Utilities must be held accountable and be aggressively penalized for their overreliance" on the shutoffs, he said in a statement.

The utility, which provides power across much of Northern California, has used rolling blackouts in fire-prone areas where downed lines and faulty transmission towers have been known to spark wildfires, including last year's Camp fire, the state's deadliest, which killed 85 people.

Newsom has argued that greed and mismanagement led to the maintenance issues that require the utility to use blackouts during wildfire weather.

At a news conference Monday, Andy Vesey, chief executive of PG&E's utility division, defended the blackouts, saying they prevented "catastrophic events from happening."

"We continue to believe it's the right thing to do," he said. "We will not roll the dice when it comes to public safety."

CORRECTION (Oct. 29, 2019, 6:45 p.m.): A previous version of this article misspelled the last name of the chief executive of PG&E's utility division. He is Andy Vesey, not Andy Vise.

Alex Johnson contributed.