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Authorities say 180,000 people have been ordered to leave their homes as powerful winds threaten to spread a wildfire in Northern California’s wine country. (Oct. 27)
AP, AP

SAN FRANCISCO — With its blue skies and bustling tourist traffic, this California city is doing its best to appear normal.

But a closer look reveals a level of chaos more typical of a Hollywood disaster movie.

Downed trees, hurricane force winds, whitecaps on the bay and widespread power outages were the supporting cast of a drama that played up and down the Golden State on Sunday.

As usual, the savage stars were the fires. Back for a repeat performance that Californians now brace for each fall, seven currently rage — including the dangerous Kincade Fire in Sonoma County, which is just 5% contained, has consumed 85 square miles and is responsible for displacing 180,000 of the state’s 200,000 evacuees.

Is this the new normal here, a daily life that includes schools and businesses suddenly being shuttered, entire communities going dark for days, residents put on evacuation standby alert and vulnerable populations scrambling for care?

A massive tree, downed by ferocious winds that hit the Bay Area this weekend, lies on its side in San Francisco’s Marina District. Although this city has power, nearly 3 million Californians up and down the state do not, leaving some to wonder if this is the new normal for the state’s 40 million residents. (Photo: Marco della Cava, USA TODAY)

Unless a solution is found for everything from a suspect power infrastructure that can’t be relied on to a statewide housing shortage that often finds residents retreating to less expensive rural enclaves, it may well be.

In the meantime, it’s little surprise first responders are being pushed to their limit. Police officers in small towns help residents deal with a lack of traffic signals. Emergency medics scramble to assist the injured. Firefighters duel infernos in a race against time.

Northern California double-whammy: Amid blackouts, massive fire forces nearly 200,000 to flee homes

And everyone else just tries to stay sane and kind — even optimistic.

“I don’t like this idea of the new normal,” says Lisa Mattson, 45, whose home in Fountain Grove, near Santa Rosa, is still a construction zone after suffering damage in the 2017 Tubbs Fire that killed nearly two dozen. “I’m not willing to accept it, and I think that the state has to come up with some sort of solution,”

Mattson evacuated early Sunday morning as the surging Kincade Fire approached her neighborhood. Despite a resilient attitude, Mattson’s frustration is palpable. 

Woodbridge firefighter Joe Zurilgen passes a burning home as the Kincade Fire rages in Healdsburg, Calif., on Oct 27, 2019. (Photo: Noah Berger, AP)

“This is an amazing state that has a lot of incredible resources and contributes a lot to the world,” she says. “But to just have this continue to happen and us having to be completely dysfunctional, whether we, you know, have no power or we’re rushing away from fires and having to rebuild our lives at these absolutely ridiculous prices that everybody’s being charged …”  

More PG&E blackouts this week?

Mattson’s resolve, unfortunately, will continue to be tested. 

Pacific Gas & Electric, the bankrupt utility that has shut down power to millions over the past weeks as a precautionary measure, announced Sunday that it was monitoring another dangerous combination of high winds and low humidity coming Tuesday that may spur another statewide power outage.

A few weeks ago, PG&E was blasted for shutting off power to some 2 million Californians with little notice, a move the utility claimed was necessary to prevent wildfires caused by power lines downed by high winds.

Those forecast gusts didn’t come, but thundering blasts from Gov. Gavin Newsom and others politicians did, all arguing that this could not be the new normal for the state’s 40 million residents.

At the end of last week, PG&E again said it would have to shut down power lines to nearly 40 counties. To date, some 2.3 million have been impacted.

‘PG&E hasn’t made its system safe’: California lawmakers slam utility amid widespread power outage

epa07953820 A firefighter walks pass a building burning out of control, as the Kincade Fire continues to burn in Healdsburg, California, USA, 27 October 2019. According to reports, the Kincade Fire has burned more than 25,000 acres and triggered mandatory evacuations of about 90,000 residents in the area. EPA-EFE/PETER DASILVA ORG XMIT: PDS01 (Photo: PETER DASILVA, EPA-EFE)

A climate apocalypse or a cyclical trend? Climate experts say the planet’s warming trend is a key factor, while experts in the field point out that California’s current woes have been visited on the state in the past.

Critical fire weather conditions of this level occur in California once every five to 10 years, says meteorologist Liz Leitman of the Storm Prediction Center, while allowing that some of the current wind speeds — up to 107 mph in Placer County on the western outskirts of Lake Tahoe — are notable.  

“Some of the weather observation stations in the Bay Area have only had one or two other times in the station history that they’ve recorded conditions that are either at or worse than what we’re seeing today,” she says.  

What’s different, Leitman adds, is that there are more Californians living in areas that are particularly vulnerable to wind-driven fires than in decades and centuries past.

Power outages test California’s resolve

What is perhaps new, however, are the power outages, says Brian Ferguson, spokesperson for California Office of Emergency Services. Their blanket nature and frequency will bring unprecedented challenges to communities large and small, and especially to elderly residents whose life-sustaining devices depend on a steady source of electricity, he says. 

To help manage the chaos for those not able to stay put in their homes, Ferguson says CalTrans has set up backup generators in tunnels and California Highway Patrol stationed officers to direct traffic.  

“Certainly there’s a lot of work to do and there’s been a lot of frustration with everyone trying to deal with it, but our state is strong and will continue to be strong in the face of these challenges,” he says.

Firefighters survey Soda Rock Winery as it begins to burn during the Kincade fire in Healdsburg, California on October 27, 2019. (Photo: JOSH EDELSON, AFP via Getty Images)

Why not just bury them?: California power lines spark wildfires and prompt blackouts

Californians last saw a statewide emergency for wildfires in July 2015, when a series of fires ravaged counties from San Diego to Humboldt. At present, at least 43 of California’s 58 counties are experiencing red flag warnings, according to Gov. Newsom’s emergency declaration.

For San Francisco resident and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer, the blame lies at the doorstep of the White House. He says, “We can’t solve this within the Golden State. We are in a fight for our lives, and the president isn’t doing anything to help us. In fact, he’s making things worse.” 

President Donald Trump has been at odds with California frequently of late, threatening federal intervention to deal with what he sees as the state’s neglect on the issues of homelessness. California’s attorney general, Xavier Becerra, has filed some 60 lawsuits against the Trump administration in response to a range of issues.

Steyer says he, like many, “knows someone affected by these constant fires,” adding that his brother’s house came within half a block of burning last year. “What I can say is that every time this happens to us, the response from people within the state, from regular people to our first responders, is amazing. But we need action on this, now.”

‘Is this going to keep happening?’

Susan Smith would agree. The resident of Shasta County, where 40,000 PG&E customers had their power turned off, has lived through tornadoes and hurricanes but has never dealt with as many outages as she has since moving from Texas.

“If PG&E doesn’t have faith in themselves that they can’t withstand a wind storm, then they need to go out of business,” Smith says Sunday while charging her phone at a community resource center set up in her hometown of Anderson.

A sign at the entrance of the drive-thru at Starbucks warns customers the store is closed due to a power outage in Paradise, Calif., on Oct. 24, 2019. The Pacific Gas & Electric Co. cut power to 17 counties in Northern California to help prevent wildfires caused by downed power lines. (Photo: Rich Pedroncelli, AP)

Smith and other neighbors don’t accept that this is what living in California will be about on an annual basis. But nonetheless, they’re adapting. 

Suzanne Felion, also of Anderson, says she learned some valuable lessons following her first power outage earlier in October.

“I lost a bunch of food the first time my power went out,” Felion says. This time, however, Felion had an ice chest stocked to keep her perishables from spoiling.

‘Greed’ and ‘mismanagement’: California governor slams PG&E for widespread power cuts

With winter and its fierce rains and possible mudslides approaching, Felion wonders, “Is this going to keep happening?”

The answer is something 40 million other Californians are waiting on as well.

Contributing: Jorge Ortiz, USA TODAY; Arthur Damon, Redding (Calif.) Record-Searchlight.

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