Mobile Homes Destroyed in Southern California Town as Wildfires Intensify

Jan Wesner Childs and Ron Brackett
Published: October 11, 2019

Extreme fire danger worsened Thursday afternoon in Southern California, where one wildfire grew rapidly and destroyed numerous mobile homes in the town of Calimesa.

Fire crews responded quickly to the so-called Sandalwood Fire Thursday afternoon as it invaded the Villa Calimesa Mobile Home Park not far from Interstate 10. The surrounding area, which includes a middle school, was ordered to evacuate as the fire grew and moved quickly to the west, away from the freeway.

As the fire expanded to an estimated 500 acres, footage from a KTLA-TV helicopter showed dozens of mobile homes on fire.

(MORE: California's Fire Risk Is Highest in the Fall, and This Week Is No Exception

The Riverside County Fire Department announced that there were "numerous medical emergencies" inside the mobile home park but did not provide further details. The fire was sparked when a garbage truck driver dumped a burning load of trash onto vegetation, the incident fact sheet also said; Dry, windy conditions allowed the flames to spread quickly.

Calimesa is located about 70 miles east of downtown Los Angeles.

In Northern California, schools, universities and businesses remained closed Thursday as more than 625,000 Pacific Gas & Electric customers endured a second day without electricity.

The second phase of PG&E shutoffs started at 11 p.m. Wednesday and caused hundreds of thousands of additional people to lose electricity. Overnight, police departments had extra personnel on the streets, and some areas instituted curfews.

A small wildfire in the affected area forced about 150 families to flee their homes in Moraga in Contra Costa County, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. The fast-moving fire had burned about 40 acres as of early Thursday and was 80% contained.

Another small fire that broke out under some power lines on San Bruno Mountain about 10:55 a.m. Thursday prompted voluntary evacuations in parts of the city of Brisbane, just south of San Francisco. Officials said it had burned 4 to 5 acres.

A large fire that began Sunday was only 25% contained on Thursday. The Briceburg fire has burned more than 7.5 square miles in Mariposa County, according to Cal Fire.

Firefighters work to contain a wildfire burning off Merrill Dr. in Moraga, California, on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019.
(AP Photo/Noah Berger)

All told, about 750,000 customers across 34 counties in Northern California and central and coastal areas saw their power turned off. PG&E was able to restore electricity early Thursday to about 125,000 customers across the state, including 74,000 sites in Humboldt County.

Economists told the Chronicle the outages could cost businesses and residents more than $1 billion. Some customers could be without electricity for up to a week because, even after the weather improves, PG&E must check all the lines before turning the power back on.

"It's just kind of scary. It feels worse than Y2K. We don't know how long," Tianna Pasche of Oakland told the Associated Press. "My two kids, their school situation keeps moving every second. It's not clear if we need to pack for a week and go out of town or what to do. So I'm just trying to make sure we have water, food, charging stations and gas."

"For me, this is a major inconvenience in my life as a parent but also, if it saves a life, I'm not going to complain about it," she said.

The electricity has been shut off in an effort to prevent windblown power lines from starting wildfires. The National Weather Service on Thursday issued a red flag warning because of the possibility of high winds and very low daytime humidity. Gusts over 70 mph were recorded overnight in the hills of the San Francisco Bay Area.

In San Jose, California, officials warned that many of the cities’ major roadways were without power and traffic lights weren't functioning. They said to treat the intersections as four-way stops.

The shutoffs affected at least three state prisons, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials said.

In Southern California, electricity was cut to about 4,700 customers on Thursday morning, according to Southern California Edison. The customers were in parts of Kern, Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Ventura counties. The utility had warned that electricity could be cut off to more than 173,000 customers in those four counties and five others — Riverside, Orange, Tulare, Inyo and Mono — because strong Santa Ana winds are forecast for Central and Southern California.

The preemptive outage in Northern California stands to be one of the largest in the state's history as windy, dry conditions raise the risk for wildfires in the coming days.

Windy conditions can cause power lines to spark fires when they are blown down or come into contact with trees or other vegetation. PG&E power lines have been blamed for several high profile fires in recent years, including the blaze that killed 86 people last year in Paradise, California.

Researchers have such said catastrophic fires could become more common as climate change leads to warmer weather and longer fire seasons.

(MORE: The Science Behind Wildfire-Stoking Santa Ana Winds

While the outages impacted 750,000 PG&E accounts, many more actual individuals could be affected. Millions could face days without electricity, the Chronicle estimated.

Hospitals, municipalities and other agencies across the affected areas were prepared to have generators on stand by and were warning residents to stockpile supplies. Those who use medical equipment that relies on electricity were being warned to prepare for the outages and call for assistance if needed, and residents were being told to have go bags and emergency kits on hand.

Armando Espinoza delivers paper products to a cafe in downtown Sonoma, California, where power was turned off, on Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2019.
(AP Photo/Noah Berger)

Elected officials and residents expressed anger over the blackouts.

"People should be outraged, as we are," said California Gov. Gavin Newsom. "No one is satisfied with this. No one is happy with this. But we have to get through this fire season."

Newsom has called on PG&E to upgrade infrastructure to make it less vulnerable and prevent massive outages such as this one.

State Sen. Jerry Hill told the Chronicle the shutoffs show PG&E has failed to make its system safe.

“PG&E needs to harden its system, make it resilient and make it safe, and not make power shutdowns the go-to response,” Hill said.

“Expecting the power to stay on when the wind blows isn’t that giant a leap for mankind, yet here we are 50 years after the first moon landing having great inconvenience and personal or economic losses for many of our residents,” U.S. Rep. Doug LaMalfa said.

PG&E says safety is its first priority.

"This is a last resort," Sumeet Singh, head of the utility's Community Wildfire Safety Program, told the Chronicle.

At the Dollar General store in Paradise, the town that was mostly burned to the ground by the Camp Fire, shoppers were grabbing candles, gas cans, ice, flashlights, batteries and canned food. Ice chests were sold out Tuesday morning, manager Ben Humphries told the AP.

Humphries, who lost his home in last year's blaze, saw some irony in PG&E's aggressive preemptive power outages in the area now, after the company opted not to turn off the power ahead of the Camp Fire.

"I understand their concerns. But in my opinion, it's too little too late. We already had our town burned to the ground," Humphries said.

The Weather Company’s primary journalistic mission is to report on breaking weather news, the environment and the importance of science to our lives. This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, IBM.

The Weather Company’s primary journalistic mission is to report on breaking weather news, the environment and the importance of science to our lives. This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, IBM.