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SANTA ROSA, California (AP) – Firefighters battled destructive wildfires in Northern California wine country and on the west side of Los Angeles on Monday, trying to beat back flames that forced tens of thousands to flee their homes.
California’s biggest utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, cut off power to an estimated 2.5 million people in the northern part of the state over the weekend in yet another round of blackouts aimed at preventing windblown electrical equipment from sparking more fires. And more shut-offs are possible in the next few days.
The fire that broke out last week amid Sonoma County’s vineyards and wineries north of San Francisco grew to at least 103 square miles, destroying 94 buildings, including 40 homes, and threatening 80,000 more structures, authorities said. Nearly 200,000 people were under evacuation orders, mostly from the city of Santa Rosa.
In Southern California, the blaze on the west side of Los Angeles erupted before dawn Monday and roared up slopes into wealthy neighborhoods, threatening thousands of homes. Tens of thousands of people were ordered to clear out.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said that the fire had grown to 500 acres and that he had seen five burned homes. Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas said he expects the number of homes destroyed to climb.
Night-flying helicopters made water drops before daybreak, and airplanes dropping water and fire retardant joined the battle after the sun came up.
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, with flames driven by gusts that reached more than 102 mph.
Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency over the weekend.
The biggest evacuation was in Sonoma County, where some people who were packing up and fleeing Sunday had done so two years ago, when devastating wildfires swept through Sonoma, 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 leave 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.”
Hundreds of people arrived at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa by Sunday. Some came from nursing homes. More than 300 people slept in 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 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.”