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US utility outfit slammed for greed as millions face power cuts amid wildfire

Healdsburg, United States

CALIFORNIA officials warned on Saturday that "extreme" wind conditions were set to fan wildfires across the north of the US state as residents were ordered to evacuate and millions faced power cuts.

Nearly 90,000 people were ordered to flee their homes in Sonoma County, north of San Francisco, a number that rose over the course of the day as the Kincade Fire spread after breaking out on Wednesday.

The blaze, which is burning in remote steep terrain, threatens tens of thousands of structures and had already forced the evacuation of the small community of Geyserville and nearby vineyard operations.

By Saturday evening, a total of 77 structures, among them 31 residential buildings, had been destroyed by the blaze, as more than 2,800 personnel were called to the scene, according to Jonathan Cox, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

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"This is definitely an event that we're calling historic and extreme," David King, a meteorologist for the US National Weather Service, told The Los Angeles Times. "What's making this event really substantial... is the amount of time that these winds are going to remain."

The wind was expected to increase overnight and peak on Sunday morning, reaching speeds of 60-80 miles per hour (95-130 kmh), Ryan Walburn, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service San Francisco Bay area, told reporters at a press conference.

Those winds, which have caused a red flag warning indicating a high risk level, will last into early Monday, meteorologists said.

California's largest utility, Pacific Gas & Electric Co., said it expected to cut off power to 940,000 customers - a precautionary shutdown that local media reported would affect about two million people.

PG&E said: "Winds of this magnitude pose a higher risk of damage and sparks on the electric system and rapid wildfire spread."

The Kincade Fire, which is only 10 per cent contained, has grown to 25,955 acres (10,500 hectares), Mr Cox said.

PG&E has come under fierce scrutiny after power was earlier shut down to nearly 28,000 customers in Sonoma County last week, but some high-voltage transmission lines were still operating when the fire broke out.

The same type of power lines were responsible for California's deadliest wildfire ever - last year's Camp Fire, which killed 86 people.

PG&E, which filed for bankruptcy protection earlier this year, has been blamed for several other fires in the state in recent years.

California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency and hit out at the company on Friday, saying it had put "profits over the people of California for too long".

"It's about dog-eat-dog capitalism meeting climate change," he said, referring to PG&E. "It's a story about greed, and they need to be held accountable." AFP

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