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Firefighters race to control blazes before winds roar back

Stefanie Dazio and Brian Melley
Associated Press

Los Angeles – Howling winds that fueled destructive wildfires across California began to die down Friday, but residents in the northern part of the state braced for another round of power outages aimed at preventing what are expected to be the strongest gusts in years from sparking more blazes this weekend.

Fires have destroyed dozens of buildings in Northern California wine country and in subdivisions on the outskirts of Los Angeles, where flames shut down a freeway and smoke forced schools to close. Officials are trying to gain some control of the flames as the wind tapers off – for now.

FILE - In this Nov. 8, 2018 file photo a home burns as the Camp Fire rages through Paradise, Calif. As California counties face the prospect of increased utility power shut-off meant to prevent wildfires, counties with more resources are adapting much more easily to the challenge than poorer ones.

The state was under extreme fire danger like it’s probably never seen before, Emergency Services Director Mark Ghilarducci said. Wildfires are growing deadlier and more destructive amid climate change.

California’s largest utility admitted its electrical equipment may have ignited the wildfire amid Sonoma County’s vineyards despite blackouts imposed to prevent blazes.

Even as Pacific Gas & Electric restored power to most of the half million people without electricity, it warned of outages that could hit 2 million in north and central parts of the state from Saturday until Monday.

PG&E resorted to shutoffs after equipment malfunctions and trees blowing into power lines sparked 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.

The drastic measure has been widely criticized for poor planning and execution that has left people in the dark even when they weren’t in areas facing fire danger.

Linda York of San Jose was trying to make weekend plans with her teenage grandson but was getting stressed out as she got peppered by text messages from PG&E warning about the possible blackouts.

“You’re watching the clock, and you’re waiting for it to happen,” she said. “It almost feels like the apocalypse is coming.”

The fire near the Northern California town of Geyserville burned at least 49 buildings and 34 square miles (65 square kilometers), prompting evacuation orders for some 2,000 people.

“I just visited a number of structures that were destroyed,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said at a news conference. “Familiar sights to all of us, devastating sights to those impacted lives literally torn asunder.”

Firefighters were hoping to take advantage of a lull in gusts to build a perimeter around the fire near Geyserville, but Fire Chief Thom Porter worried winds resurfacing Saturday night would make it difficult to hold those lines.

“We’re working diligently on closing the doors that are open on this fire,” Porter said.

Meanwhile, a fire driven by hot, dry Santa Ana winds howling up to 50 mph (80 kph) threatened the suburb of Santa Clarita north of Los Angeles and forced the evacuation of 50,000 people.

The cause of the fire was unknown, but Southern California Edison said it had cut off power to the area five hours before it broke out Thursday.

At least six homes were destroyed, and officials said the number was expected to rise as they took a more thorough look. No immediate injuries were reported.

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

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

Some residents tried to fight the blaze with garden hoses. People rushed to rescue dozens of horses, donkeys, goats, a pig and an emu.

Officials said a firefighting helicopter was grounded after its windshield was damaged by a collision with a bird.

The fire jumped a highway and roared through dry grass and chaparral as it grew to nearly 7 square miles (18 square kilometers).

High winds were expected to taper off by Friday evening. Despite the break, Southern California Edison, which shut off electricity to more than 31,000 customers Thursday, was considering additional power cuts to 132,000.

The huge Los Angeles school district closed all its schools in the San Fernando Valley, citing poor air quality and other safety concerns.

While the high winds in Northern California had died down by Friday, they were expected to pick up over the weekend, with gusts of 40 to 60 mph (64 to 97 kph) in many places.

The dangerous conditions led PG&E to warn it may black out an even larger region, on par with the nearly 2 million people who lost electricity earlier this month.

PG&E chief meteorologist Scott Strenfel said Northern California could be in for the strongest offshore winds in years.

Associated Press writers Juliet Williams in San Francisco and John Antczak in Los Angeles contributed to this report.