Flames from a backfire consume a hillside as firefighters battle the Maria Fire in Santa Paula, Calif., on Friday, Nov. 1, 2019. (Photo: AP)
Calmer weather allowed crews to increase containment of wildfires after a three-week siege of gusts fanned blazes across California and led utilities to cut power to prevent winds from blowing branches into electric lines and igniting an inferno.
Winds subsided in virtually all parts of the state, though Red Flag warnings for fire danger because of winds and ultra-dry conditions remained in place through Friday evening for some inland areas to the north and west of Los Angeles.
Lingering winds were blamed for churning up a wildfire that erupted Thursday evening and quickly spread from a hilltop near Santa Paula, northwest of Los Angeles.
Authorities in Ventura County ordered evacuations for about 7,500 people in an area that includes roughly 1,800 buildings as the blaze threatened the small, unincorporated rural community of Somis.
Hundreds of firefighters raced to attack the blaze, which initially was fanned by moderate winds. It grew in only a few hours early Friday to more than 12 square miles (33 square kilometers) before winds eased.
Firefighters were protecting avocado and citrus orchards and infrastructure including radio communication facilities and high voltage electrical power lines. Dozens of local schools in the area were closed.
For most of October, fires sprang up across the state, forcing residents to flee homes at all hours as flames indiscriminately burned barns, sheds, mobile homes and multimillion-dollar mansions.
Nearly 200,000 Sonoma County residents were allowed to return home even as the 121-square-mile (313-square-kilometer) fire that forced them to evacuate continued to burn.
At least 167 homes were destroyed. The number of homes considered threatened was drastically reduced to about 1,600 as containment increased to 67 percent Friday.
Brenda Catelani choked up as she recalled driving back home to Windsor with her husband.
“I think when we left, and especially Sunday, we didn’t think we’d be coming back,” Catelani said.
Chunks of burnt embers, burned leaves and ash littered the outside of her house.
The fire had come within 500 yards (457 meters) of their house — closer than the wine country fires of 2017 that killed 44 people and destroyed 8,900 homes and other buildings in Sonoma and Napa counties.
“We feel extremely lucky,” Catelani said.
Evacuations were also lifted for two small fires, fed by gusts up to 60 mph (96 kph), that destroyed homes Thursday in the heavily populated inland region east of Los Angeles. One of those blazes, in Jurupa Valley, was caused by dry grasses ignited when a stolen car chased by police tried to escape through fields.
The wildfires came even as many people were in the dark from the intentional outages.
In places where the power stayed on, utility lines and other electrical equipment were suspected or confirmed as the cause of several fires, including the one in Sonoma, another that started on a hillside above the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles and one that burned around the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley on Wednesday.
Pacific Gas & Electric finished restoring power to dozens of counties in the north and central regions after a third round of shutoffs this week designed to protect power lines from being damaged or toppled by high winds and sparking fires.
Only 1,100 Southern California Edison customers remained without power early Friday, down from about 80,000 on Thursday. San Diego Gas & Electric said it restored power to 25,000 customers affected by safety shutoffs.
The most devastating wildfires in California’s history have occurred in the past two years in the fall, fueled by a combination of built-up brush, dry conditions and extreme winds. The anniversary of the deadliest of those — last year’s fire that torched the town of Paradise and killed 85 — is next week.
The state experienced a wet winter with a large snowpack, and temperatures and wind speeds didn’t spike simultaneously over the summer, which has led to a less destructive fire season overall.
Acreage burned this year is down nearly 90% from last year and 80% below the five-year average over the same period, according to figures compiled through Sunday by the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
The moisture, however, has fueled explosive growth of grasses that have now shriveled into golden and brown tinder.