October 11, 2019 / 10:12 PM / a month ago

California's new normal - evacuating wildfires yet again

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - It’s part of California’s new normal - year-round fire seasons, planned electricity blackouts and, for retired couple Bhagvei and Paresh Badreshia, sudden evacuations in the middle of the night. Again.

A wind-driven wildfire burns near power line tower in Sylmar, California, U.S., October 10, 2019. REUTERS/ Gene Blevins

They were among 100,000 residents forced to flee a fierce, wind-driven wildfire that swept foothills and canyons along the northern edge of Los Angeles on Friday, engulfing homes, closing roads and devouring acre upon acre (hectare upon hectare) of dry brush and chaparral.

The evacuations in Southern California came after the state’s largest utility, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) (PCG.N), switched off the power to nearly 800,000 homes and businesses in northern and central California to prevent its transmission lines from sparking wildfires under gusting dry winds.

It was the second time in less than four years the Badreshias have been forced by an emergency to flee their home in Porter Ranch, a plush suburb where some scenes for the 1982 movie “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” were filmed.

In 2015, a massive, four-month-long methane leak from a ruptured wellhead in the nearby Aliso Canyon gas storage field drove thousands to seek shelter from the stench of odorised fumes with friends or at hotels.

“It’s like a little scary. You have to come here and you don’t have anything,” said Bhagvei Badreshia, 64, as the couple stood outside the Red Cross evacuation centre near Porter Ranch.

HILLS BURNING

The couple were awakened at 3 a.m. by their adult daughter, who had been up watching news on television about the fire and alerted her parents when evacuation orders were issued.

Paresh Badreshia, 73, said he looked out his window and saw flames burning in the hills a couple miles (km) away. A police officer had parked his patrol car out front, making sure everyone in the neighbourhood got out, so the couple gathered a some clothes, grabbed their small dog and left, the husband said.

“Here we feel like we are on a slumber party,” Bhagvei Badreshia said of the shelter, adding that her dog was running around and had been fed.

The couple recalled the 2015 gas leak ordeal being more difficult than the fire evacuation. Back then, residents were forced to stay with relatives and at hotels and were never properly compensated for their displacement, they said.

Aliso Canyon was evacuated as a precaution on Friday, but fire officials and the Southern California Gas Company, a unit of Sempra Energy SRE.N., which operates the storage field, said there appeared to be no immediate threat to the facility.

Fire officials blame a warming climate for a longer, drier wildfire season that now stretches virtually year-round in parts of the state.

Governor Gavin Newsom, who has called it a “new normal,” this week signed 22 pieces of legislation that build on $1 billion in the state budget devoted to preparing for wildfires and other emergencies.

California has endured two of its worst wildfire seasons in recorded history in the past two years, forcing the evacuation of millions.

In November 2018, the Camp Fire became the deadliest wildfire in California history, killing 86 people and virtually destroying the town of Paradise.

PG&E filed for bankruptcy in January 2019, citing potential civil liabilities in excess of $30 billion from the Camp Fire and a separate flurry of wildfires that swept California’s wine country north of San Francisco Bay in 2017. Both of those disaster were linked to PG&E transmission wires and other equipment.

Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; writing by Bill Tarrant; editing by Cynthia Osterman and Sandra Maler

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