California declares state of emergency as mass power outages and evacuations continue

Chaffin Mitchell

California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency on Sunday in response to the wildfires raging across the state and the "unprecedented high-winds."

"If you live in an affected area, please stay safe, alert, and heed all warnings from local officials," Newsom said in a tweet along with the announcement.

Human remains were found on Saturday where the Tick Fire ignited at least six houses in the suburbs of Southern California, authorities reported. As fire departments fight back the raging infernos, power outages are expected to impact an estimated 3 million people and tens of thousands of people remain under evacuation orders.

AccuWeather Reporter Blake Naftel, who is in Sonoma County experiencing the wildfires firsthand, saw many people spending their Saturday afternoon prepping their properties and evacuating.

Naftel interviewed a resident in Windsor, California, who was spraying his yard with the hose before leaving his home in hopes of returning to it in the same condition.

"I already lost one house in the Fountain Grove fire I'm not losing another one if I can help it," Eric Schimmel said.

"Its nerve-wracking for me because I understand the ramifications, I've already been through this one. I know what it does to your life," Schimmel said.

Schimmel said his kids are inside handling the situation "pretty well."

"This must be a pretty scary thing for them but they're anxious to get going and I'm anxious to get going too," Schimmel said.

Two years after being scarred by deadly wildfires, Sonoma County is under siege again as thousands of firefighters fight to keep powerful winds from fanning the flames of the Kincade Fire.

As of Sunday afternoon, the Kincade Fire had grown to 30,000 acres and was only 10% contained, according to Cal Fire. Almost 80 structures have been destroyed as 68 crews and a total of 2,830 fire personnel work to control the flames.

On Sunday morning, the fire was encroaching Highway 128 on both sides in Sonoma County in Healdsburg. Reports say trees and power lines are down throughout the area.

New evacuation warnings were issued for 50,000 residents for the entire towns of Healdsburg and Windsor. This number is in addition to the 43,000 people already under evacuation warnings from the Santa Rosa suburbs to the Pacific Coast, just 35 miles from the fire's current location. The evacuation orders now extend to the Pacific Ocean in Sonoma County, and there is a concern that fire may cross Highway 101.

Sunday morning local time, authorities in Northern California had ordered 180,000 residents to evacuate, according to the Associated Press.

"This is the largest evacuation that any of us at the Sheriff's Office can remember. Take care of yourself," said a tweet from the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office.

The fires have not only driven people from their homes, but have also impacted businesses such as the wine industry. Nearly 40 square miles of the wine-growing region has been burned as of Sunday morning.

The Tick Fire started on Thursday afternoon, exploding from 200 acres to 800 acres in less than an hour. By Saturday evening, it had grown to 4,615 acres with 65% containment, according to the Cal Fire.

A new pair of fires began midday Sunday, both impacting I-80 in the Bay Area. The Glen Cove Fire burns in Vallejo, Solano County, and the Sky Fire across the Carquinez Strait near Crockett, Contra Costa County. The Sky Fire is currently at 100 acres, according to the Cal Fire.

In terms of the overall economic impact on California, wildfires in 2019 won't be as costly as they were in 2018, AccuWeather Founder and CEO Dr. Joel N. Myers said on Friday. Myers estimated that wildfires this year will cost California $100 billion in economic losses, compared to $400 billion in 2018, but higher than the $85 billion wildfires cost in 2017.

AccuWeather forecasters believe about half of a million acres in California could be scorched by the end of the fire season, which should conclude in mid-December.

AccuWeather's economic impact estimate is drawn from an in-depth analysis of the population of areas burned by wildfires, the number of acres burned and the number of businesses and homes damaged or destroyed. The analysis takes into account a host of other factors like school closures, insurance costs and state funds devoted to battling the fires.

"This estimate, which includes both insured and uninsured losses, is far less than our estimate for the 2018 wildfire season, but far greater than our estimate for 2017," Myers said. "Last year was a terrible year for wildfires in California, but the season ended earlier. This year it will end later than usual," he added.

Although wildfires have scorched only 210,000 acres across California in 2019 as of Oct. 25 - a far cry from the 1.8 million acres burned last year and the 1.3 million burned in 2017 - Myers emphasized that planned power outages this year are affecting more people and, though they may prevent fires from starting, also come with an economic cost.

"Power outages are more of a factor this year," Myers said of the planned blackouts. "That will result in a significant cost per customer per day as power utilities implement blackouts as a precaution throughout the state."

In an effort to prevent a power line sparking a fire, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. initiated an unpopular move for the second "Public Safety Power Shutoff" this month on Wednesday in Northern California. Power has since been restored to many of the customers.

However, in a filed incident report from the Sr. Director of PG&E, the company was aware of a tower malfunction at 9:20 p.m. PDT Wednesday night. Cal Fire reports that the Kincade Fire started at 9:27 p.m. Wednesday night.

"We didn't see the wind speeds in the forecast that we typically would see for transmission outage," PG&E CEO Bill Johnson said at a press conference. "We relied on the protocol and we still at this point do not know exactly what happened... The fact that we filed this [report], does not tell us what caused the fire."

Pacific Gas and Electric confirmed on Saturday they have implemented a Public Safety Power Shutoff around 2 p.m., affecting approximately 940,000 customers across 36 counties, according to the company. Estimates indicate the potential outage could affect more than 2 million people.

The blackout has the potential to be the largest wind-related blackout yet.

"This wind event is forecast to be the most serious weather situation that Northern and Central California has experienced in recent memory," said Michael Lewis, PG&E's senior vice president of Electric Operations.

Over 1 million customers were already without power by Sunday afternoon, according to PowerOutage.us, with the outages mostly focused in Northern California. Sonoma County had over 95,000 outages at the time.

In response to the Public Safety Power Shutoffs, Gov. Newsom launched the Local Government PSP Resiliency Program "to mitigate the impact on Californians by supporting continuity of operations and efforts to protect public health, safety, and commerce in affected communities," according to the governor's office. The program will allot $75 million to be split among the state and local governments.

Diablo and Santa Ana winds, strong winds that accelerate down from the coastal range, over the past two days had carried with them the potential to down power lines and spark new fires.

"We are looking at winds becoming gusty over Northern and Central California at this time, and through the day Sunday, they should remain quite gusty. Some of these wind gusts could climb to the AccuWeather Local StormMax™ of 90 mph Sunday," AccuWeather Meteorologist Alan Reppert said.

According to Reppert, Sunday night into Monday, winds will transition to Southern California as a Sundowner wind event begins over the North-South-facing canyons and passes, before becoming more of a classic Santa Ana wind situation for Monday.

"Wind gusts in Southern California will be from 35-55 mph with an AccuWeather Local StormMax™ of 80 mph. The low humidity will continue through much of the week and not provide help for firefighting efforts, but with lower temperatures moving through California today as a cold front pushes southward, this will help efforts some," Reppert said.

"Another Santa Ana event is looking likely for Tuesday into Thursday as winds will again be offshore and the relative humidity levels will stay low. This will prolong the fire threat through much of this week," Reppert said.

Ellie Laks looked across the animal sanctuary founded on her dream to help animals and people alike. A few horses stood calmly in a pasture, waiting patiently at the gate, but thick smoke was rolling in over the mountains. The Tick Fire was rapidly approaching.

"It's moving very, very fast," Laks said, a few flames visible from over the mountains. The orange-brown smoke blotted out most of the sky.

With the power out on Thursday, Laks took to Twitter to call for help in evacuating the 100 or so animals that called the sanctuary home as the Tick Fire crept over the mountainside.

"The Gentle Barn is home to animals who have nowhere else to go because they're too old, too sick, too lame or too scared to be adoptable," Laks told AccuWeather over the phone on Friday.

Dogs, birds, cows, sheep, pigs and other animals that called the sanctuary home were loaded up and driven off to about four different locations. Even a few oddballs like Earl the emu and King the llama had found a new temporary refuge.

Problems with the evacuation arose, however, when animals such as Zeus, an old, 750-pound pig, physically couldn't step up into a trailer to evacuate. Pigs typically live to 4 to 5 years old, according to The Gentle Barn. Zeus is still kicking at 12 years of age.

The sanctuary also had concerns for one of their older cows, who they feared would have a fatal slip trying to step into the trailer.

And then there was Zoe.

The Belgian draft horse had put on the brakes at the door of the trailer, refusing to leave her home.

"There was nothing wrong with her," Laks said. "There's nothing physically challenging for her, she just didn't want to, and how are you going to make a 2,500-pound horse do anything?"

From the afternoon until midnight, Laks, staff and volunteers worked to load the animals that they could into trucks and trailers. They crated the chickens and turkeys, led the goats by leashes and their horns and carried the sheep before loading the horses and cattle into the remaining trailers. The volunteers that didn't have trailers and couldn't lead the animals lined the street at the edge of the five acres, armed with fire extinguishers, jackets, and blankets trying to put out approaching flames.

Weighing their options with the winds starting to ease up, the decision was made to keep animals like Zeus, Zoe and a potbelly pig named Jellie at the sanctuary while staying up for the rest of the night to keep an eye on the progress of the flames.

"We're praying that this wind dies down. As long as there's this ferocious wind, the fire could come back at any second," Laks said.