Wind-whipped fires rage across California as lights go dark

Fire firefighter hops over a locked gate while working the Tick Fire on October 24, 2019 in Canyon Country, California. (Getty Images/AFP)
Updated 25 October 2019

Wind-whipped fires rage across California as lights go dark

  • It’s not clear how any of the blazes began

GEYSERVILLE, California: Fast-growing fires throughout California forced thousands of people to evacuate their homes Thursday as dry winds and high heat fed both the flames and fears in a state still jittery from devastating wildfires in the last two years.
Officials said they did not yet know how many homes had burned and that no immediate injuries were reported. It’s not clear how any of the blazes began.
In Northern California wine country, authorities ordered 2,000 people to evacuate as a wildfire exploded to more than 15 square miles (39 square kilometers), whipped up by the strong winds that prompted utilities statewide to impose blackouts to prevent such fires from igniting.
The state’s largest utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, reported a problem with a transmission tower near where the fire ignited, but it is not clear whether the malfunction sparked the blaze.
Officials ordered an evacuation of the entire community of Geyserville, home to about 900 people and a popular stop for wine country tourists, along with nearby residents. The blaze threatened some of the area’s famed wineries and the River Rock Casino as the blaze raged on the outskirts of town.
In Southern California, two fires rolled along the parched foothills north of Los Angeles, forcing at least 40,000 people to flee neighborhoods where thousands of homes have sprung up in recent decades.
Several homes burned as the blazes fanned by powerful winds swept through dry brush to the edge of communities in the Santa Clarita area. Winds gusting to about 40 mph (65 kph) pushed the flames, and enormous plumes of smoke were visible for miles. People used hoses to try to protect their properties.
Until now, the focus of California’s wildfire season had been on power outages that utilities said were necessary to stop high winds over the coming days from toppling power lines and starting fires. But the season kicked into higher gear Thursday with the arrival of raging fires and the need to quickly escape them.
A series of deadly blazes tore through the same area in Northern California wine country two years ago, killing 44 people.
Among those fleeing Geyserville was 81-year-old Harry Bosworth, who awoke before sunrise to find a firetruck and firefighters in his driveway. As he and his wife drove off, flames surrounded their driveway and their barn caught fire.
“I could see the fire coming, so we got the heck out of there,” Bosworth said after escaping to his daughter’s house in the neighboring town of Healdsburg.
Julia Jackson of Geyserville-based Jackson Family Wines, which owns more than 40 wine labels and thousands of acres of vineyards, posted on Instagram that her home was “burnt down to the ground.”
“Stuff is just stuff. Thank God I’m alive,” she wrote. Jackson, who founded a climate change conference, said such fires are why she is doing the work.
Another Geyserville evacuee, Isaac Hale, said he woke up to the sound of authorities ordering him out.
“The highway patrol showed up banging on the door, ordering everyone to evacuate because the fire was so close,” Hale said, seated on top of his SUV near a road closure checkpoint. “The fire, it just spread so fast.”
It started Wednesday night near the Geysers, the world’s largest geothermal field, where nearly two dozen power plants draw steam from more than 350 mountain wells to create electricity, California Department Of Forestry And Fire Protection incident commander Mike Parkes said.
It was fueled overnight by 76 mph (112 kph) winds in rugged terrain that was hard to reach, he said. Some people were refusing to leave despite the danger, Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick said.
“Please heed our evacuation order,” he said in a televised news conference. “We really need to be able to fight the fire, rather than worrying about rescuing you.”
The fire raged amid rolling blackouts instituted after utility electrical equipment was blamed for setting several blazes in recent years that killed scores of people and burned thousands of homes.
The state’s largest electric utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, filed for bankruptcy protection in January as it faced billions of dollars in damages from such wildfires. The investor-owned energy company has set aside billions for insurers and wildfire victims while facing a public backlash over its handling of the outages.
PG&E spokesman Paul Doherty said parts of Geyserville lost power as scheduled Wednesday. The company’s outages are affecting half a million people or nearly 180,000 customers.
In Southern California, hot and dry Santa Ana winds led Southern California Edison to cut power to more than 27,000 customers. It was considering additional power cuts to more than 386,000 customers.
The latest outages come two weeks after PG&E shut down power for several days to about 2 million people.
Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, is among those who have criticized PG&E and other utilities for the blackouts and their handling of wildfire danger.


Top diplomat implicates Trump in explosive impeachment testimony

Updated 21 November 2019

Top diplomat implicates Trump in explosive impeachment testimony

  • Sondland said Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani led the effort at Trump’s direction to pressure Ukraine President Volodymr Zelensky
  • Trump said he barely knew Sondland and had not spoken to him much

WASHINGTON: A senior US diplomat directly implicated President Donald Trump Wednesday in a scheme to force Ukraine to probe a political rival, in bombshell testimony to a televised impeachment hearing.
Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, told lawmakers he followed the president’s orders in seeking a “quid pro quo” deal for Ukraine to investigate Democrat Joe Biden in exchange for a White House summit.
Sondland said Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani led the effort at Trump’s direction to pressure Ukraine President Volodymr Zelensky for the investigation and that top officials in the White House and State Department knew about it.
The unexpectedly damning testimony drew a sharp backlash from Trump who tweeted: “This Witch Hunt must end NOW. So bad for our Country!.”
Trump said he barely knew Sondland and had not spoken to him much, despite the senior diplomat having donated $1 million to his inauguration and testifying that he had spoken to the president some 20 times while ambassador.
Democrats said Sondland’s seven hours of testimony before the House Intelligence Committee had bolstered their case for Trump’s impeachment for what they have labeled “extortion.”
“Today’s testimony is among the most significant evidence to date,” said committee chairman Adam Schiff.
“It goes right to the heart of the issue of bribery as well as other potential high crimes or misdemeanors.”
A succession of Democrats hoping to win the nomination to take on Trump in next year’s election also said the testimony had strengthened the case for impeachment as the issue dominated the opening exchanges in their latest televised primary debate.
Sondland said Trump directed him and two other senior diplomats to work with Giuliani.
From early in the year, Giuliani mounted a pressure campaign on Zelensky’s government to investigate Biden over his son Hunter’s ties to a Ukrainian energy company, Burisma, and to probe a conspiracy theory espoused by Trump that Ukraine helped Democrats against him in 2016. Biden is one of the favorites to challenge Trump in next year’s presidential election.
“Mr. Giuliani demanded that Ukraine make a public statement announcing the investigations of the 2016 election/DNC server and Burisma,” Sondland told the panel.
“Mr Giuliani’s requests were a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit for President Zelensky.”
Far from being a “rogue” operation outside normal US diplomatic channels, Sondland told the hearing top officials — including Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — were kept constantly informed.
“We followed the president’s orders,” he said.
Like Trump a multimillionaire developer with a chain of high-end hotels, Sondland, who wore a $55,000 Breguet white gold watch to the hearing, fended off pressure from both Democrats and Republicans.
He had not implicated the president in earlier private testimony, when he answered scores of questions by saying he could “not remember.”
But subsequent testimony by other witnesses which had further implicated him in the Ukraine pressure scheme had jolted his memory, he said on Wednesday.
While he confirmed the linkage between the investigations and a White House meeting between Zelensky and Trump, he would not attest to allegations that Trump froze $391 million in aid as well to Ukraine to add pressure on Ukraine.
“I never heard from President Trump that aid was conditioned on an announcement” of the investigations, he said, contradicting testimony from two other diplomats.
In separate testimony, a Pentagon official appeared to undermine a key Republican defense in the impeachment battle, that Kiev did not even know until late August or even September about the July 18 aid freeze, rendering moot Democrats’ allegations that Trump had extorted Ukraine.
Laura Cooper, the Pentagon official in charge of Ukraine affairs, said Kiev voiced concern over a holdup in aid on July 25.
That was the same day that Trump told Zelensky in a phone call that he wanted a favor, asking for investigations into Biden specifically and the 2016 conspiracy theory.
“The Ukrainian embassy staff asked, ‘What is going on with Ukrainian security assistance?” she told the committee.
At the White House, Trump denied making the demand of Zelensky, citing Sondland’s own recall of their September 9 phone call on the Ukraine issue.
Reading from large-print notes, he said that he told Sonderland: “I want nothing. I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. Tell Zelensky to do the right thing.”
“If this were a prizefight, they’d stop it!” he said of the inquiry.
Speaking at the Democrats’ debate, Biden dodged a question on the role of his son but said the testimony had shown that “Donald Trump doesn’t want me to be the nominee.”
And Bernie Sanders, another of the frontrunners for the nomination, said Trump had been shown to be “not only a pathological liar” but also “the most corrupt president in the modern history of America.”