90,000 Told to flee as California fires nearly double in size

By Tim Arango, Ivan Penn and Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs

As two wildfires raged across Southern California on Tuesday, nearly doubling in size overnight and forcing thousands more people to flee their homes, the state’s utility companies are again coming under scrutiny for their potential role in sparking new blazes.

Southern California Edison said its equipment may have played a role in starting one of the fires, the Silverado Fire, which had churned through about 13,000 acres in Orange County.

The fire raised more concerns about whether utilities have substantially improved their safety efforts, and whether the company should have more broadly shut off power in Southern California this week. Edison’s posture stood in contrast to Pacific Gas & Electric, which turned off power to a broad swath of Northern California beginning Sunday over fears of dangerous wildfire conditions.

Fueled by strong Santa Ana winds, the fires in Orange County have put more than 90,000 people under emergency evacuation orders, many of them in Irvine. Their homes are being threatened by both the Silverado Fire and the Blue Ridge Fire, which has a footprint of about 15,000 acres.

Investigators have not determined what ignited the fires, but on Monday, Southern California Edison filed its second wildfire incident report this year, saying that a telecommunications line might have struck its equipment and might have caused the Silverado Fire. Last month, the utility filed a report that said its equipment was part of an investigation into the cause of the Bobcat Fire, which burned about 116,000 acres near Pasadena.

Edison said Tuesday that it did not cut power to the line possibly connected with the Silverado Fire because wind speeds were not high enough to warrant it.

Even critics of the utilities cautioned against drawing conclusions about the incident reports. Telecommunications companies hang their wires on utility poles and are responsible for their own equipment.

“We don’t want to make any wide-eyed accusations without having the evidence,” said Mark Toney, executive director of the Utility Reform Network, which represents consumers before the utility commission.

The record-breaking 2020 fire season has seen enormous wildfires tear across California and other states in the West. Experts have linked the worsening fire season to climate change, as emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases from the burning of fossil fuels have led to warmer and drier conditions.

Daniel Swain, a climate scientist with the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at the University of California, Los Angeles, said that while fall fires are predictable, “Just about everything else about the present situation is quite unusual.”

More than 5 million acres have burned across California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington state this year. In California alone, fires have burned more than 4.1 million acres, destroyed 10,488 homes and other structures and led to at least 31 deaths.

More than 750 firefighters have been battling the blazes, which were known to have damaged 10 homes as of late Tuesday afternoon. But the area of concern widened as winds blew the fires to new areas, including toward Chino Hills, a city of about 84,000 people that sits at the corner of Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties.

The Orange County Fire Authority, which is the lead agency battling both fires, said it hoped that softening winds would slow the fires’ pace and allow firefighters to use aircraft to contain the blazes. The Silverado Fire is 5% contained and the Blue Ridge Fire is completely uncontained.

Firefighters on Tuesday said they were hopeful that, with forecasts predicting that winds would subside in the afternoon and evening, they would be able to increase the containment of the fires and, possibly, allow people to start returning to their homes.

“Our concern is getting people back in their homes once it’s safe,” said Capt. Jason Fairchild, of the Orange County Fire Authority.

While officials set up numerous evacuation centers, many residents who evacuated chose to avoid them, either out of concerns about the coronavirus or because they could afford to stay in hotels.

Two firefighters were gravely wounded by the Silverado Fire, and they were intubated Monday after receiving second- and third-degree burns across most of their bodies, said Brian Fennessy, the fire authority’s chief.

The injuries to the firefighters, who are 26 and 31 years old, only raise the stakes in the scrutiny over the actions of the utility companies.

Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric, which pioneered the strategy of power outages to reduce wildfire risk, typically cut power to fewer homes and businesses at a time than Pacific Gas & Electric, which has been more willing to cut off power to tens of thousands of customers.

“I think most customers are much happier with the surgical approach with the wildfire shut-offs,” Toney said. “I don’t see any evidence in effectiveness” in PG&E’s approach, he said.

Tuesday morning, fewer than 20,000 Edison customers were without power compared with about 100,000 in PG&E’s service area — including the Bay Area, where thousands of households and businesses have bought backup power systems since the widespread outages were first carried out last year. The backup power systems, which can cost several thousand dollars to install, are an added expense for an already expensive state — and seen by some as the cost of climate change.

The shut-offs were an added challenge for families already dealing with distance learning because of the pandemic. In some communities online classes were canceled because of the power outages. Even some households with generators had trouble connecting to the internet. Comcast, the internet provider, said the blackouts had affected its equipment, causing 100,000 households to lose their internet connections.

In Southern California, outages have been much less extensive.

“We’ve broken our grid up so we can do smaller shut-offs to our customers,” said Taelor Bakewell, an Edison spokeswoman.

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