Sonoma County Fire 5% Contained as Focus Turns to PG&E Equipment

PG&E told state regulators Thursday that equipment on a transmission tower broke near the origin point of the fire, near Geyserville in northeastern Sonoma County. PG&E identified an outage on the tower shortly before the fire was reported Wednesday.

by Jill Tucker, San Francisco Chronicle / October 25, 2019
Vines surround a burning building as the Kincade Fire burns through the Jimtown community of unincorporated Sonoma County, Calif., on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019. AP

(TNS) - Wind-driven flames tore through a Wine Country already scarred by past infernos, burning homes to the ground, forcing thousands to flee and prompting embattled Pacific Gas and Electric Co. to investigate whether its equipment sparked a disaster it had gone to great lengths to avoid.

PG&E told state regulators Thursday that equipment on a transmission tower broke near the origin point of the fire, near Geyserville in northeastern Sonoma County. PG&E identified an outage on the tower shortly before the fire was reported at about 9:25 p.m. Wednesday.

The fire broke out as PG&E turned off power for a wide swath of Northern California, including parts of Sonoma, in the second mass outage in two weeks. The utility is planning for an even more extensive outage this weekend prompted by severe wind forecasts.

The Kincade Fire had by Thursday afternoon blackened 16,000 acres and destroyed or damaged 49 homes and structures. Hundreds of firefighters arrived and were able to achieve 5% containment of the blaze. As of 7:30 p.m. no fatalities or missing persons had been reported.

Spurred by wind gusts reaching 60 mph, the fire threatened Geyserville, as well as some wineries in the area, as it moved quickly through dry brush and trees. Many of the roughly 2,000 people forced to flee their homes fumbled for their keys and shoes in darkness because the power was out in an attempt by PG&E to prevent exactly what was happening.

The fire touched nerves already frayed by PG&E blackouts, red-flag wind warnings and other deadly and destructive blazes that have erupted at this time of year. As the power company took extraordinary steps to reduce fire danger, the breakout of this fire made some feel the situation isn’t getting any better.

“This is the new normal that we live in,” said Healdsburg Mayor David Hagele. “It’s disheartening, and it’s scary for a lot of people because it does bring back a lot of scary memories from a couple of years ago.”

For PG&E the possibility that one of its faulty transmission lines caused the Kincade Fire is a nightmare scenario. The beleaguered utility has expended considerable political capital in implementing its planned power outage program, a move intended to reduce fire risk but has angered customers and politicians alike. It could also complicate its already contentious and highly complicated bankruptcy case.

If state investigators ultimately confirm PG&E equipment started the fire, it will be the latest in a long series of disasters and controversies that have embroiled the San Francisco company for the better part of a decade. They include a deadly 2010 gas pipeline explosion and a series of horrific and record-setting wildfires in 2017 and 2018 that drove PG&E into bankruptcy protection in January.

Bill Johnson, CEO of the utility’s parent PG&E Corp., said that the cause of the fire has yet to be determined. He also defended the company’s maintenance of the transmisson line in question, telling reporters Thursday that the tower in question is 43 years old and has been inspected four times in the past two years, including manually and by drone this year.

Hours before it the fire broke out, PG&E had shut off its low-voltage distribution lines in that area as it put nearly 28,000 Sonoma County homes and businesses in the dark.

But PG&E did not turn off its 230,000-volt and 115,000-volt transmission lines in the area, the company said. Transmission lines, the kind of equipment that started last year’s devastating Camp Fire, carry electricity at high voltages across long distances before the power is stepped down at a substation and delivered to homes via distribution lines.

PG&E’s criteria to turn off transmission lines had not been met, spokesman Paul Doherty said. Those include the severity and duration of the extreme weather, conditions specific to the site, the age and condition of the equipment, when it was last repaired and “real-time field observations,” he said.

Cal Fire officials said the fire was expected to continue to grow before it is contained. There were no reports of deaths or injuries.

The fire started on John Kincade Road in the hills northeast of Geyserville, and by dawn Thursday the blaze had burned several homes and other structures along Geysers Road, including at least two in the area of Crazy Creek Vineyards in the Alexander Valley. As of early afternoon Thursday, the fire had crept to the eastern edge of Geyserville, where an evacuation order was in effect for the entire town.

Beginning late Wednesday, firefighters and law enforcement officers banged on doors to alert residents, many of whom received no notification to evacuate because of the outage.

“The Fire Department came and said we had to leave,” said Paula Whitehall, 65, who fled her Geyserville home in pajamas, the fire raging a short distance away on a hill next to the River Rock Casino.

“I just thought, ‘Here we go again,’” she said.

The fire burned through a portion of CalPine Corp.’s Geysers geothermal plant facilities in the area where the fire started Wednesday, causing minor damage to the equipment there, according to spokesman Brett Kerr.

Kerr said the geothermal plant powered down its own local power lines before the blaze began because of the high winds and “consistent with our fire prevention protocols.”

“We do not believe our facilities caused the fire,” Kerr said. “There are power lines operated by third parties across the Geysers.”

More than 1,300 firefighters and other personnel were on the scene, as well as engines, bulldozers, hand crews and air support from helicopters and planes surveying the blaze and dropping water and retardant.

A grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, would ensure resources are available to fight the fire and cover the eligible costs incurred by local, state and tribal agencies, Gov. Gavin Newsom said, even as he slammed California’s three investor-owned utilities for their part in preventing such fires, reserving his harshest words for PG&E.

“I will forgive them the new realities and the acuity of a climate crisis,” he said. “But I will not forgive them for not making the kinds of investments in their equipment, hardening and undergrounding and anticipating this new reality, of which they have had ample time to anticipate.”

Two weeks ago, PG&E cut power to an estimated 2 million Californians — an unprecedented move for a utility trying to stop its equipment from starting wildfires.

As the Kincade Fire spread along Geysers Road, erratic winds kicked up embers and ash that swirled like tiny tornadoes. Along the road, a steady line of bulldozers headed toward the flames as cars filled with evacuees drove to safety.

Flames gutted several structures at the intersection of Red Winery Road and Geysers Road. A power line drooped over the street at the intersection, and several feet away flames chewed away at a power pole.

With fires still burning small structures, the fire engines at the scene packed up and left.

“More fires to fight,” a firefighter yelled out the window as they pulled away.

One home on Red Winery Road suffered damage when a large tree, cracked at the trunk by strong winds, toppled onto the roof.

By morning, the blaze had pushed west and headed into Alexander Valley vineyards, leaving the hillside to the east of Geysers Road scorched. About a dozen cows huddled on one small patch of land that hadn’t burned.

Arch Monson, 69, and his family fled their property, Monson Vineyards, on Geysers Road at 3 a.m., heading downhill to stay with a neighbor.

“As we were pulling out, firefighters were pulling in,” he said. “We were hearing explosions — loud booms — presumably from propane tanks. It seemed like there was a burst of wind, and fire was coming down to the valley floor.”

At 5 a.m., they evacuated again.

“We were pretty far away, but we’re seeing live embers in the air swirling around, landing and a lot of thick smoke,” Monson said. “You could see the fire had moved down the foothills. We just could tell it was time to get out. On the road out, we saw fences on fire, landscaping, trees on fire.”

Wildfires were breaking out Thursday across the region fueled by high winds. Firefighters responded to at least four wildfires in the North Bay on Thursday, including the 50-acre Muir Fire in Marin County and a 75-acre fire burning in a rice field in Butte County.

In a statement, PG&E officials said Wednesday the decision to power down “was based on forecasts of dry, hot and windy weather that poses a higher risk for damage and sparks on the electric system and rapid wildfire spread.”

PG&E Chief Meteorologist Scott Strenfel said this weekend “could bring the strongest wind event of the season,” which would be even stronger than the winds experienced during the 2017 Wine Country fires.

And even as they braced for yet another fingers-crossed power-outage plan, Geyserville residents were coming to grips with the damage from the Kincade Fire.

Ben Vyborny, who lives near Dilworth Vineyard in Geyserville, decided to defy the evacuation order and stay behind to protect his house. Early Thursday he burned his right arm fighting flames threatening his home. While his house survived, the house he grew up in — his parents’ home across the valley — didn’t fare as well. It burned down, although he was able to evacuate his 70-year-old mother.

“A lifetimes worth of stuff,” he said, staring at the ground. But “everyone is safe. That’s the most important thing.”

Julia Jackson, a second generation proprietor of Jackson Family Wines, also lost her family home. She wasn’t able to return to see the house because of the evacuation orders — and she wasn’t sure she wanted to. “To be honest, I don’t think I can look at the devastation right now. There’s a lot of memories in that house.”

Chronicle staff writers Matthias Gafni, Alexei Koseff, Sarah Ravani, Lizzie Johnson and Lauren Hernández contributed to this report.

Peter Fimrite, Megan Cassidy, J.D. Morris and Jill Tucker are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: pfrimrite@sfchronicle.com, megan.cassidy@sfchronicle.com, jd.morris@sfchronicle.com, jtucker@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @jilltucker, @pfimrite, @meganrcassidy, @thejdmorris

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