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California power company admits equipment may have sparked wildfire

Firefighters have battled flames in both northern and southern California.

Homes have been destroyed in Santa Clarita, California (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)
Homes have been destroyed in Santa Clarita, California (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

By Associated Press Reporters

California’s biggest utility company has admitted its electrical equipment may have ignited a devastating wildfire despite blackouts imposed to prevent blazes.

The disclosure came as firefighters battled flames in both northern and southern California – the fire in Sonoma County’s vineyards, and a wind-whipped blaze that destroyed homes near Los Angeles.

The fire near the northern California town of Geyserville burned at least 49 buildings and 34 square miles and prompted evacuation orders for some 2,000 people.

It was driven by the strong winds that had prompted Pacific Gas & Electric to impose sweeping blackouts affecting half a million people. Power was restored to most people by Thursday evening, PG&E said.

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A helicopter drops water on a fire along Soledad Canyon road (David Crane/The Orange County Register via AP)

PG&E resorted to shut-offs after fallen power lines and other electrical equipment were blamed for several blazes in recent years that killed scores of people, burned thousands of homes and ran up billions of dollars in claims that drove the utility into bankruptcy.

However, PG&E said on Thursday it did not de-energise a 230,000-volt transmission line near Geyserville that malfunctioned minutes before the fire erupted. The utility reported finding a “broken jumper” wire on a transmission tower on Wednesday night.

PG&E CEO Bill Johnson said it was too soon to know if the faulty equipment sparked the fire. He said the tower had been inspected four times in the past two years and appeared to have been in excellent condition.

Investors were wary though, and PG&E stock fell more than 20% during the day.

In shutting off the electricity, PG&E cut power to the distribution lines that supply homes, but not to its long-distance transmission lines.

Meanwhile, an estimated 50,000 people were under evacuation orders in the Santa Clarita area north of Los Angeles as hot, dry Santa Ana winds howling at up to 50mph drove the flames into neighbourhoods. At least six homes were burned.

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A firefighter prepares to tackle a wildfire (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

“I’m literally seeing sticks and fire of what used to be our home,” Alejandro Corrales told KCBS-TV. She said the fire also took her mother’s ashes, other belongings and possibly a pen full of pet sheep.

“Everything in the house is gone,” Mr Corrales said. “The panels on one of the pens where we have some rescued sheep was too hot for my daughter to open, and so she couldn’t let them out. … So I’m probably sure that we lost them, too.”

Firefighters on the ground and in the air struggled to protect homes surrounded by trees and brush as the fire grew to 4,300 acres.

In some places, they failed. As hot embers flew, homes and rural ranch properties were damaged or destroyed in Santa Clarita and in nearby Castaic.

Sean Malin, 27, evacuated from Santa Clarita along with his mother and their two dogs after police officers drove down their street, telling them to leave.

“It’s a huge inconvenience,” he said. “On the other hand, I know that the worst thing we could possible do is get in the way of a firefight that needs to happen.”

PA

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