TERENCE CHEA and DON THOMPSON
SANTA ROSA, California (AP) — Firefighters battled destructive wildfires north of San Francisco and in western Los Angeles neighborhoods on Monday, trying to beat back flames that forced thousands to flee their homes.
Easing winds offered a chance of improved conditions for firefighters trying to control a huge fire in Sonoma County wine country north of San Francisco, but forecasters warned that another round of strong wind gusts could hit the area on Tuesday.
That fire has been burning since Wednesday, has grown to 85 square miles (220 square kilometers), destroyed 94 buildings and threatens 80,000 buildings, including parts of the city of Santa Rosa, state fire authorities said Sunday night.
In Los Angeles, a fire erupted before dawn Monday on the west side of Sepulveda Pass, where Interstate 405 passes through the Santa Monica Mountains, and roared up slopes into wealthy neighborhoods, threatening thousands of homes. Several homes were seen burning and Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James tweeted that he and his family had to evacuate his home.
Mount Saint Mary’s University evacuated 450 students from its Chalon campus near Getty Center arts and cultural complex. The Getty was built with special fire protection features and Los Angeles fire department Capt. Erik Scott said it was not threatened.
The prospect of more heavy winds in Northern California raised the possibility that some of the millions of people who on track to get their electricity back after it was turned off in an effort to prevent utility equipment from sparking fires may not have power restored before another possible round of shut-offs.
The Pacific Gas & Electric Co. utility notified more than 1.2 million people that they may have their electricity shut off for what could be the third time in a week and the fourth time this month. PG&E and other utilities in the state have been shutting off power in certain areas to prevent fires during strong winds.
Fire conditions statewide have made California “a tinderbox,” said Jonathan Cox, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Of the state’s 58 counties, 43 were under warnings for high fire danger Sunday.
Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in response to the wildfires, powered by gusts that reached more than 102 mph (164 kph).
In the San Francisco Bay Area, two grass fires Sunday briefly halted traffic on an interstate bridge. The flames came dangerously close to homes in the city of Vallejo. Another grass fire closed a stretch of interstate that cut through the state capital as smoke obstructed drivers.
In Southern California, firefighters patrolled an area burned by a wildfire last week in Santa Clarita, north of Los Angeles, to make sure winds didn’t cause it to rekindle. Eighteen structures were destroyed by that fire.
To prevent power lines from sparking in high winds and setting off more blazes up north, PG&E said Sunday that power was out to 965,000 customers and another 100,000 have lost electricity because of strong gusts, bringing the number of residents impacted by blackouts to nearly 2.7 million people.
The biggest evacuation was in Northern California’s Sonoma County where 180,000 people were told to pack up and leave. Some evacuating early Sunday had done so two years ago, when devastating wildfires swept through Sonoma and Napa and neighboring counties, killing 44 people.
At an evacuation center at Napa Valley College, Francisco Alvarado, 15, said he, two younger brothers and his parents decided to vacate their Calistoga home in advance of evacuation orders. Two years ago, the family had to flee, but in the middle of the night.
“I’m pretty mad that we have to keep evacuating,” he said. “I just want to be home. I’m trying to leave here tomorrow; I want to sleep in my bed.”
The fear that the winds could blow embers and spread fire across a major highway prompted authorities to expand evacuation orders that covered parts of Santa Rosa, a city of 175,000 that was devastated by wildfire two years ago.
Hundreds of people arrived at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa by Sunday. Some came from senior care facilities. More than 300 people slept inside an auditorium filled with cots and wheeled beds. Scores of others stayed in a separate building with their pets.
Among them was Maribel Cruz, 19, who packed up her dog, four cats and fish as soon as she was told to flee her trailer in the town of Windsor, about 60 miles (100 kilometers) north of San Francisco. She also grabbed a neighbor’s cat.
“I’m just nervous since I grew up in Windsor,” she said. “I’m hoping the wind cooperates.”
A historic attraction outside Healdsburg was lost Sunday when embers carried by wind sparked a blaze that engulfed the Soda Rock Winery. Buildings included a general store and post office founded in 1869.
In central California, a tree toppled in strong wind Sunday killed a woman and injured a man who was taken to a hospital, officials said.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, gusts knocked over a 30-foot (9-meter) tree at a farmers’ market in Martinez, injuring nine people, including a toddler. Six people left with injuries that were not life-threatening were taken to a hospital, police said.
Smoke from another grass fire Sunday forced the closure of a stretch of Interstate 80 running through Sacramento’s downtown. Meanwhile, fire officials spotted downed power lines in the area of a small fire that destroyed a building at a tennis club and three other structures in Lafayette, a leafy suburb in the east San Francisco Bay Area.
Associated Press writers Daisy Nguyen and Janie Har in San Francisco, John Antczak and Christopher Weber in Los Angeles and Julie Watson in San Diego contributed to this report.