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Wind gusts of 70, 80 mph could further fan southern California wildfires

Posted at 5:22 AM, Oct 30, 2019
and last updated 2019-10-30 12:33:16-04

California authorities have warned of what could be a devastating night for the Southern California fire that's burned through hundreds of acres and threatens thousands of homes.

The Getty Fire is 15% contained , officials say, "but the fight isn't over." The fire was likely caused by a tree branch that broke off from high winds and landed on nearby power lines, sparking and igniting nearby brush, the Los Angeles Fire Department said Tuesday.

"Tonight we're expecting dangerous conditions not seen in recent history -- wind gusts up to 70 mph & extremely low humidity," the Los Angeles Police Department said Tuesday.

The strong Santa Ana northeastern winds -- with gusts reaching up to 70 mph and around 80 mph in some areas -- could last through Thursday, the National Weather Service said, adding they could be some of the strongest "of recent memory." The air may be cold, the service said, but doubled with low humidity, conditions add up to "an extreme fire weather threat."

An extreme red flag warning went into effect Tuesday night and will last through Thursday evening. It's the first time the weather service has issued such a warning to convey potentially historic fire conditions.

At least 26 million people are under some kind of red flag warning.

Meanwhile, the more than 7,000 residences under mandatory evacuation orders will likely stay empty into Wednesday.

"People will not be returning to their homes this evening," Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said earlier Tuesday, CNN affiliate KTLA reported. He added evacuees should "stay safe and stay away."

Brigitte Kouba Neves, a Los Angeles native, says her heart stopped when her neighbor knocked on her door early Monday and told her they were in the evacuation zone.

"I can't explain the feeling of packing a bag with the items I want to save from a fire," she said in an Instagram post describing how she and her husband chose daily essentials and their wedding album.

Neves lives in a voluntary evacuation zone and has so far been safe.

"Currently, we have our suitcases by the door, the car is packed, and we're ready to go and say goodbye to our home if they say we must," she wrote. But she described to CNN what's it's like to live under constant threat and worry.

"I have 3-year-old twins with sensitive lungs so school has been canceled a lot, they've had to wear masks, and we've discussed the fact that there are fires far away ... and it changes air quality," she said. "We've let them role play with their firefighter outfits and trucks."

Meanwhile, other parts of the US will freeze

Another fire up north

The Getty Fire is one of about 10 wildfires raging across the state, burning through thousands of acres. In Northern California, the Kincade Fire -- the state's largest active wildfire that's also just 15% contained -- has destroyed more than 76,000 acres across Sonoma County and more than 180 structures, including 86 single-family homes, officials said. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

Late Tuesday night, the massive flames could be seen from San Francisco, a camera from CNN affiliate KGO showed. The camera was about 60 miles away from the fire.

The fire has been burning about a week and spread rapidly when it first ignited.

Weather conditions look more favorable going into Wednesday and toward the end of the week, a weather service spokesman said, but rain still is nowhere in sight. Winds will weaken into Thursday, the weather service said.

About 2,400 people from the 186,000 under evacuation orders had returned to their homes Tuesday night, Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick said in a news conference.

"Many of these people are still returning to homes that are without power because of the PG&E power shutoff ," he said. "So we want people to be vigilant, be aware communication may not be great."

And the power shutoffs continue

And as residents flee their homes or remain on standby, many are in the dark, with back-to-back public power safety shutoffs across the state from California's largest utility companies.

Nearly a million Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) customers were in the dark in northern parts of the state earlier this week. As hundreds of thousands began getting their power back, the utility kicked off another power shutoff.

About 73% of the customers impacted by the shutoff earlier this week had power restored early Wednesday, the company said in a news release.

The company also said it would begin cutting off power to 540,000 customers ahead of more strong winds.

After a request by the governor, the company announced Tuesday it would be issuing credit to customers that were impacted by the October 9 power shutoff, which turned off the lights for about 738,000 customers.

In Southern California, more than 304,100 faced a possible power shutoff, Southern California Edison said.

"Customers who live in high fire risk areas as defined by the California Public Utilities Commission are more likely to experience a (public safety power shutoff)," the company said. "Customers who don't live in these high fire risk areas may also be impacted because of how the grid is interconnected."