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As wildfires burn, California residents express fear, anger toward PG&E

California is under a state of emergency, with multiple wildfires burning and threatening thousands of homes. Over two million customers experienced power outages throughout the weekend -- and may face more this week if dry, windy conditions persist. Stephanie Sy reports and talks to KPCC reporter Jacob Margolis about what's at stake for residents, businesses and embattled utility company PG&E.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    California is under a state of emergency, with multiple wildfires burning at both ends of the state, threatening thousands of homes, including those of LeBron James and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Los Angeles.

    And all of this comes as more than two million customers have been dealing with power outages throughout the weekend and possibly more again tomorrow.

    Stephanie Sy has more from our "NewsHour West" bureau.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    That's right, Judy.

    We spent some time talking to people in Northern California over the weekend.

    But, first, I want to bring in Jacob Margolis, who has been covering a new fire that broke out this morning in Los Angeles. Jacob is a reporter for KPCC.

    Jacob, thanks for your time.

    So, two things stick out to me about this current fire in L.A. It's close to a major freeway, and it's close to populated neighborhoods. How dangerous is this fire right now?

  • Jacob Margolis:

    Very dangerous.

    I mean, it kicked off at about 1:30 this morning, and some residents had absolutely no notice. They had to flee right away. And it's basically tearing its way through a mountainous area that is hard — it's kind of a hard area to fight — firefight in.

    But it's also this fire is driven by really, really, really heavy winds, really strong winds that are coming over the mountains kind of across the valley from this one area, and they're just slamming into that fire and pushing it along.

    And there is a concern that it would burn all the way to the ocean. And there are neighborhoods tucked into these hills. The more we have built into the wildlands, the more lives — so, I would say buildings and lives could possibly be impacted by fires like this.

    Fires are not uncommon in this area, but the more building that we have done, we have become more aware.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Any idea how this fire started, Jacob?

  • Jacob Margolis:

    L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti said that they're looking into it at this point.

    Usually, it can take some time before we actually know. But we're going to have to wait and see.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And there were 10,000 evacuations in the area. So this was a pretty populated area.

  • Jacob Margolis:


    There's a lot of places kind of like homes tucked into these mountains. There are also a lot of very narrow roads to get out. And so they had traffic issues as well up there.

    I actually stood on a trail overlooking this area recently, and I was thinking to myself, oh, this area is prime to burn, because there is a lot of brush up there. There's a lot — even though we have had a lot of fires here, you can tell the areas that are like kind of ready to go, because a lot of the native vegetation is pretty lush.

    And we had a really, really, really wet year this past year, and then just like dryness. And so everything was kind of — kind of ready to go, especially since it's so dry by the time we hit October. Hopefully, our rainy season comes along soon. That would be really wonderful.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    So this is being called the Getty Fire, partially because it's in the vicinity of the Getty Center.

    For those that don't know, the Getty Center is an architectural masterpiece in Los Angeles, carries a lot of priceless art.

    Is the center actually threatened by this fire?

  • Jacob Margolis:

    The center is not threatened by this fire.

    And last year — or two years ago, there was the Skirball Fire, which came awfully close to the Getty as well. The Getty was actually designed to hopefully withstand fires. They have a special irrigation system. It's made out of a whole lot of stone.

    And so the hope is that, as fires do burn up — they also manage a lot of vegetation, so, if fires do burn up that hillside, the art will be safe. There's also an air filtration system that's supposed to protect the art from smog normally, but I imagine it also works for wildfires.

    So, my understanding is, the art is safe.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    All right, Jacob Margolis, reporter with KPCC, Jacob, thank you.

    Even as fire crews are working to contain blazes in the southern part of the state, Northern California is dealing with the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County, which has burned an area and nearly twice the size of San Francisco.

    And millions of residents are dealing with the third PG&E power outage this month.

    I spent the weekend with some of those people.

    Across wide swathes of California, high danger and high emotions.

  • Dana Naples:

    It's a little bit of PTSD from two years ago.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    As the Kincade Fire in wine country rages, a dire forecast calls for winds will blow embers into more towns and ignite more blazes starting early Sunday morning.

    Something's going on. Just in the last hour, we have gotten two different mandatory evacuation orders.

    Within minutes of the text alerts going out to 44,000 residents of the towns of Windsor and Healdsburg, traffic is snarled and gas lines snake through streets.

  • Man:

    We got the evacuation order this morning, and we didn't think nothing of this at all would be happening last night. And so here we are.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Residents, including Dana and Robert Naples, were given several hours to evacuate.

  • Dana Naples:

    It's very disjointing to kind of pack everything up, but I'm glad they gave us enough time to think about it, and do so mindfully.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    People gathered their precious belongings, for the Naples, their wedding album and dog.

    Abraham and Damian Herrera made sure their gaming consoles were packed.

    So you guys got the evacuation order this morning. What have you been doing since then?

    We have been packing and…

  • Abraham Herrera:

    Packing and looking at the news, stuff like that.

  • Stephanie Sy:


  • Abraham Herrera:

    It's scary, you know?

  • Stephanie Sy:

    People acted fast. So many had been directly affected by the Tubbs Fire in 2017 that killed 22 people and burned more than 5,000 structures, including where Dana Naples taught.

  • Dana Naples:

    My school burnt down actually in the last fire.

  • Woman:

    I saw it coming over. And so we just got out and got on the old highway, and my house was gone.

  • Woman:

    My daughter and her husband lost their home over there in (INAUDIBLE) two years ago. So, we have been through this.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Now they are seeing similar weather conditions and aren't taking chances.

    Two years ago, one of this state's most destructive wildfires tore through these hillsides, fueled by winds like these. Around here, they're called diablo winds, Spanish for devil.

  • Anthony Solano:

    We're not getting a lot of rain. And there's so much forest area out there, rural area, and it's just dry. It's like kindling out there. Once a fire goes, it just takes off, you know?

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Anthony Solano picked up a generator to prepare for what is becoming another new normal here: planned power outages.

    In bankruptcy, and facing a reported $30 billion in liabilities, the state's largest utility, PG&E, started cutting off power in risky weather preemptively this month. It's a controversial move that's affecting millions of people and an untold number of businesses.

    Restaurant owner Jen Bennett and executive chef Shaun McGrath sat on the empty patio of their restaurant in Calistoga Saturday afternoon, planning for their lights to go out.

  • Jennifer Bennett:

    We have been closed three times this month for periods of two or three days a time. Shaun gets to drive back and forth to Santa Rosa picking up dry ice every day to keep our walk-in cold our temperatures down. But we are unable to open, 21 employees without work, obviously us without an income, and a lot of perishables on their way out.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    They canceled 67 reservations this night. Bennett calculates the losses, including wages, at nearly $14,000 for last week's blackout.

  • Shaun McGrath:

    I was pretty angry, as much as everybody else. I think you try and be — try to not let that anger get to you. And…

  • Jacob Margolis:

    What are you angry about?

  • Shaun McGrath:

    Well, it's just, I think, the shutoffs in general and the lack of maintenance that they have had.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Most of downtown Calistoga is fortunate enough to have a generator that kicked on a few hours after the outage, but the restaurant Lovina is out of its range, as are these residents in this mobile home park for people over 55.

  • Woman:

    No one wants a repeat. No one wants a repeat. But is this really the only way?

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Do you blame PG&E?

  • Woman:

    Sometimes, yes, I do.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    OK. Like, what do you think could be done better in the future?

  • Woman (through translator):

    We got to get better on the brush control.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    For Tiffini Horton, it is pretty bad.

  • Tiffini Horton:

    It's been extremely difficult.

    Between a mom that has dementia, a husband who is an Iraqi vet that can't use his CPAP that needs it. My sleep is almost nonexistent. Between her wondering around trying to figure out what's going on and him not being able to breathe, it's been rough.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    To make matters worse, Horton's 82-year-old mom, Elaina, is still recovering from a fall during the first blackout.

    Can you understand why they're doing the outages?

  • Tiffini Horton:

    Yes and no. I think there's a lot of covering themselves and…

  • Stephanie Sy:

    PG&E covering itself, like, its protection from lawsuits?

  • Tiffini Horton:

    Right. And I believe that there is, for the Sonoma County sheriff especially, a risk to his people trying to get people out.

    So, the outages, plus the evacuations, makes a lot of sense.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    This is exactly why there are so many evacuations and power outages happening here. There are firefighters all throughout these hillsides fighting these fires.

    And while PG&E tries to justify its safety shutoffs to millions of people without power, it can't explain why the faulty transmission tower that it suspects started the most destructive fire of the year was left on.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stephanie Sy.

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