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Gov. Newsom visits Kincade fire damage in Sonoma County

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Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday toured the Kincade fire zone northeast of Geyserville with top state fire officials before pledging to hold PG&E accountable for its “greed” and for not making its system more resilient to wildfires.

“We should not have to be here,” Newsom said inside a garage at the Healdsburg Cal Fire station.”

Years and years of greed, years and years of mismanagement, particularly with the largest investor-owned utility in the state of California: PG&E … They simply did not do their job.”

The Democratic governor also announced the release of up to $26 million to counties from a $75 million state account created specifically to aid the response to planned shut-offs. All counties will receive at least $150,000, with sums over that “based on county size and experience” with planned power outages, and cities like Santa Rosa will be able to apply for a piece of $8 million set aside for grants, his office said in a prepared statement.

Newsom’s Sonoma County excursion came a day after PG&E told state regulators that it became aware of a malfunctioning transmission line running through The Geysers area about five minutes before the first firefighters were dispatched to the scene of the Kincade fire.

The fire has exploded to about 23,700 acres in the dry windy hills as of Friday evening, prompting evacuations in the Geyserville area and spurring more than 1,300 fire personnel in response. Its cause remains under investigation.

Accompanying Newsom on his tour were Cal Fire Director Thom Porter and California Office of Emergency Services Director Mark Ghilarducci.

Porter said the firefighting effort was focused not only on containing the fire’s flanks but on ensuring that existing lines of containment were sturdy enough to hold.

He and other officials are worried about Saturday night and early Sunday morning, when high winds are expected to batter Northern California yet again. Forecasts predict perhaps the strongest winds of the year over the weekend, prompting PG&E to launch another large planned power shut-off.

Newsom did not say exactly where he went. A spokeswoman for his office said he “toured the Sonoma area within the fire perimeter” and left for Sacramento after the news conference.

The governor, in response to questions, said his observations from the tour of the Kincade area are similar to what he’s seen in 2017 and 2018:

“Homes completely destroyed. Cars look like they’ve been in a war zone. Everything all but melted down except a few curious items. Right next door, a home that’s completely untouched” in what he called the “remarkable serendipity” of the fire.

“It’s a big area, and there’s a lot of hot spots,” he said, “but we’re benefiting because of the respite in the winds.”

He also said that currently the state is not making a bid to acquire PG&E, which faces roughly $30 billion in liabilities related to 2017 and 2018 wildfires, and credited Southern California utilities, which have more experience with planned antiwildfire blackouts, for being been much more precise with outages than PG&E.

“A scalpel, versus the scope and scale of PG&E,” he said.

In a prepared statement Friday afternoon, PG&E said it was “working to minimize customer impact wherever possible through a combination of sectionalizing the grid and providing emergency backup power generation resources that will be able to quickly re-energize customers in portions of some cities.”

PG&E has said that any of its electric customers could be affected by a blackout. That’s even the case for people where winds are relatively low whose power supply is linked to PG&E equipment experiencing more severe weather that raises the risk of wildfires, according to the utility.

The company’s statement said it had asked for help from 1,000 workers from other energy companies including staff from Albert, Minnesota and Florida, who were expected to be ready to help restore power by Sunday evening. Depending on the weather, lights could start coming back on in some places as early as Monday afternoon, PG&E said.

The outcry over PG&E’s larger outage earlier this month — which the utility launches to prevent its equipment from starting more wildfires and the liabilities that come with such blazes — prompted an apology from CEO Bill Johnson. The utility has said it tries to limit the scope and duration of its shut-offs, such as the smaller blackout this week.

“We understand that a longer shut-off would be very difficult for our customers,” Johnson said in a statement. “We are already working to minimize the length, including amassing a force of field personnel from PG&E, plus contractors and other utility companies, to be ready to tackle the inspection, repair and restoration process as soon as the weather passes.”

Newsom on Thursday declared states of emergency in Sonoma and Los Angeles counties and announced that federal money would become available to help people recover from those fires, including the Kincade. The Federal Emergency Management Agency grant will reimburse up to 75% of the cost of the local and state response to the roughly 22,000-acre and growing fire.

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5220 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports. You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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