Hundreds of Thousands Have Fled Their Homes as Wildfires Explode Across California

Firefighters try to put out the Getty Fire.
Photo: AP

California’s wildfire season arrived with a fierceness earlier this month and conditions have once again become dangerous up and down the Golden State. On Monday, residents near Los Angeles, including basketball star LeBron James, awoke to mandatory evacuation orders as the Getty Fire exploded. Fires also continue to burn in Northern California, including the Kincade Fire that forced roughly 200,000 to evacuate their homes as well.

The Getty Fire started on Monday near the 405 freeway early on Monday. It stood at 50 acres when the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) first began fighting it. Less than two hours later, the department reported that the fire ballooned more than eight-fold in size. The infamous Santa Ana winds—hot, dry winds that can create explosive fire conditions—are helping push the fire farther west.

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So far, the LAFD has confirmed at least two structures have caught on fire. Some 3,300 homes were under mandatory evacuation orders in West Los Angeles though that number is expected to increase. While the recent change in winds and fire direction is awful news for the residents in that area, it may benefit UCLA, which is also in the mandatory evacuation zone but sits further easts. Officials are urging residents in the area who are not yet under any evacuation orders to prepare.

“If you’re in the mandatory evacuation zone and you’re watching this, you’re an idiot,” Paul Koretz, the city council member who represents the area, said at a press conference. “Get the hell out. As soon as you get an evacuation order, follow it.”

A red flag warning remains in place in Los Angeles and the surrounding area with the National Weather Service calling for winds of 40-50 mph in wind-prone areas with even high gusts in the mountains. The National Weather Service also called for humidity dropping to “minimum values between 5 and 10 percent” on Monday, which could affect how fast the Getty Fire spreads (or any others that ignite for that matter).

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The winds haven’t been forgiving in the northern part of the state either. The Diablo Winds—the Northern California equivalent of the Santa Anas—reached 70 mph over the weekend. The gusty conditions helped the Kincade Fire nearly double in size overnight Saturday into Sunday. The Kincade Fire, which broke out Thursday, is only 5 percent contained and has burned more than 54,000 acres. The 200,000-person evacuation is the largest evacuation order that the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department has seen.

In response to the Kincade Fire as well as the Tick Fire in Southern California, Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency Friday. The Tick Fire is 70 percent contained, but it has destroyed some 22 structures since starting last Thursday.

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A structure being burned by the Kincade Fire.
Photo: Getty

While parts of California light up in flames, other regions remain in the dark. Literally. PG&E, the state’s largest utility whose infrastructure has been the cause of some 1,500 wildfires in the past, has shut off power to some 940,000 customers. The hope is that by cutting off power, the company can prevent the wind from downing live power lines and sparking a fire. Even a tiny spark from one of these power lines can trigger a massive wildfire.

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However, these shutoffs bring their own host of problems, especially for vulnerable individuals who need power for their medical equipment—whether that’s a fridge to keep insulin in or machine that helps some people breathe when they sleep. They’re the ones bearing the burden of PG&E’s negligence in acting sooner to upgrade its infrastructure. These residents are the ones who suffer the most by potentially going into debt to purchase a generator or extra medicine not covered by their insurance.

In Sonoma and Napa County—where the Kincade Fire is burning—the wound is still fresh for many locals who remember the 44 lives lost during the North Bay fires in 2017. PG&E’s electrical power lines caused these destructive fires. The causes are still being investigated for this latest round of fires, but we know a broken wire PG&E owns was found near where the Kincade Fire erupted.

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About the author

Yessenia Funes

I mostly write about how environmental policy and climate change intersect with race and class though I occasionally write about animals, science, and art, too. We all need an escape, right?

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