Wires

UPDATE 5-California wine-country fire began near damaged PG&E tower

Stephen Lam

(Recasts with location where fire started)

GEYSERVILLE, Calif., Oct 24 (Reuters) - A wind-driven wildfire that forced some 2,000 residents to flee their homes in Northern California's wine country on Thursday erupted near the base of a damaged high-voltage transmission tower owned by Pacific Gas and Electric Co, utility and fire officials said.

The company, a unit of bankrupt holding company PG&E Corp , acknowledged in an "electric safety incident" report filed with the California Public Utilities Commission that one of its power lines malfunctioned at about the time and location of the fire's origin on Wednesday night.

The report said a PG&E technician inspecting the site on Thursday found the area taped off by state fire department personnel who brought to his attention "what appeared to be a broken jumper on the same tower."

Although some PG&E electric distribution lines in the area had been shut down as part of a precautionary power outage due to a forecast for dangerously high winds, high-voltage transmission lines such as the one in question had been left on at the time, the utility said in a public statement.

Neither PG&E nor the commission stated whether the damaged tower or malfunctioning transmission line attached to it are suspected of igniting the blaze, dubbed the Kincade fire, which has destroyed about a dozen homes and other structures.

The cause remains under investigation, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire, which listed the fire's place and time of origin as the same as the tower incident reported by PG&E.

The Kincade fire in Sonoma County was the most severe of several blazes raging throughout California as PG&E and other utilities cut off electricity to nearly 200,000 homes and businesses in preventive blackouts to reduce wildfire risks from high winds.

PG&E filed for bankruptcy protection last January, citing more than $30 billion in liability stemming from devastating wildfires in 2017 and 2018 found to have been sparked by its equipment.

19TH-CENTURY TWON EVACUATED

The Sonoma County blaze erupted late Wednesday night and by Thursday morning had scorched some 10,000 acres (4,047 hectares), Cal Fire reported, as firefighters struggled to contain the spreading flames. No injuries have been reported.

Ground crews battled the blaze at close range with hand tools and bulldozers, assisted by water-dropping helicopters and airplane tankers carrying payloads of fire-retardant slurry.

The Sonoma County Sheriff's Office issued an evacuation order for the town of Geyserville, home to nearly 900 people. Founded in the mid-19th century, the town was named for nearby hot springs and other geothermal attractions.

A Reuters photographer observed about a dozen homes in flames in the town on Thursday.

By midday on Thursday, mandatory evacuation notices had been expanded to cover roughly 2,000 people overall, the sheriff's office said.

Large parts of California were under red-flag alerts this week due to forecasts of hot, dry winds blowing into populated areas from deserts to the east.

National Weather Service meteorologist Marc Chenard said severe winds were expected to intensify later in the day and into Friday. (Reporting by Stephen Lam in Geyserville; Additional reporting by Maria Caspani in New York and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Culver City, Calif.; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Leslie Adler)