Southern California wildfires destroy homes, prompt evacuations amid statewide power cuts

Burning trash dumped by a garbage truck caused a fire in Southern California that by early Friday had destroyed dozens of homes in Riverside County, fire officials said, as wildfires across the state led to power cuts for hundreds of thousands of people.

Authorities ordered hundreds of people in the area to leave their houses and seek shelter as they worked through the night to contain the Sandalwood fire.

Meanwhile, a wildfire that started late Thursday in the San Fernando Valley, grew early Friday to cover nearly 650 hectares, threatening northern Los Angeles communities and prompting the order for more than 1,900 homes to be evacuated, local media including the Los Angeles Times reported.

L.A. fire officials were not immediately available to comment on that fire, called the Saddleridge, which covered parts of Sylmar, Calif., and numerous other foothill communities.

“If you live in that area, please just pack up and leave now,” a Los Angeles fire official told the newspaper, as bulldozers, helicopters and other heavy equipment were called in to help fight the blaze running parallel to U.S. Interstate Highway 210.

The fires were among about 275 wildfires that have broken out across California as hot, gusty winds signalled the start of its peak fire season, state officials said.

Although many of the other reported blazes in the state were quickly contained by firefighters, the risk to life and property has prompted Pacific Gas and Electric Co (PG&E) cut power to about 730,000 customers, a move California Gov. Gavin Newsom blamed on years of mismanagement by the utility.

By late Thursday, PG&E announced it had restored power to more than half of those affected, and about 312,000 remained without electricity.

The Sandalwood fire erupted when a “trash truck dumped a load of burning trash that spread onto vegetation,” shortly before 2 p.m. Thursday, in the community of Calimesa, Calif., about 110 kilometres east of Los Angeles, the fire department said.

The fire covered just over 200 hectares and is 10 per cent contained, the department’s spokesperson, Rob Roseen, said early on Friday.

‘If you live in that area, please just pack up and leave now,’ a fire official told the Los Angeles Times. (Gene Blevins

The California Highway Patrol shut down portions of U.S. 210, and news media reported a number of motorists were stuck on the interstate highway because of the fire.

The National Weather Service said the hot gusty winds that usually hit northern California in October, sometimes called the Diablo Winds, would continue into Friday morning.

Much of Northern California, from San Francisco to the Oregon border, remains under a state “red flag” fire alert.

Newsom faulted PG&E for putting what he called “greed” ahead of investments in its infrastructure to harden the electrical grid against dangerous winds.

PG&E filed for bankruptcy in January 2019, citing potential civil liabilities in excess of $30 billion from major wildfires linked to its transmission wires and other equipment.

As winds moved south, a similar cutoff was under way by Southern California Edison, which warned more than 173,000 customers they could lose power.