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Downed PG&E lines investigated for possible ties to Northern California fires

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Widespread destruction of homes is seen after the Atlas Fire raged along Atlas Peak Drive in Napa, Calif. Wednesday, October 11, 2017. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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California officials are investigating whether downed power lines are linked to the North Bay fires that started in Napa and Sonoma counties on Sunday night, though the official cause of the deadly blazes has yet to be determined.

Cal Fire spokesperson Lynne Tolmachoff said Thursday that investigators are looking at “all possibilities” when it comes to finding a cause for the fires, including PG&E lines that toppled amid strong winds Sunday night.

“During these fires, power lines did go down, whether or not that’s the cause of the fire is something we will have to investigate,” Tolmachoff told the San Francisco Examiner. “With the amount of damage and destruction and worst of all death toll that continues to climb, we want to make sure we’re accurate.”

PG&E did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

SEE RELATED: California wildfires claim at least 26 lives, expected to burn ‘erratically’ through the weekend

The Bay Area News Group reported Tuesday that Sonoma County dispatched fire crews to at least 10 reports of “sparking wires and problems with the county’s electrical system” after 9:22 p.m. Sunday, around the time that the Tubbs Fire started in the county.

“For us to try and pinpoint exactly what happened at that moment is going to be difficult and we have our investigators out there working on it,” said Tolmachoff, who added that investigators are also looking into other possibilities like lightning or vehicle fires. “It’s going to take a while on each of these fires.”

At least 29 people died in the Northern California wildfires as of Thursday, according to Cal Fire. The deaths include 15 people in Sonoma County, two people in Napa County, eight people in Mendocino County and four people in Yuba County.

The wildfires have burned 191,431 acres since Sunday night, Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott said at a Thursday morning news conference.

Two of the largest wildfires in Northern California still burned out of control by Thursday and had consumed nearly 80,000 acres in Napa, Sonoma and Solano counties. But firefighters were able to make some progress containing the blazes with lower than anticipated winds.

“The wind event predicted to blow through the night didn’t materialize quite as predicted, and that allowed us to have more containment,” Napa County Fire Chief Barry Biermann said at a morning briefing. “We’re hoping that the weather continues to cooperate.

The Tubbs Fire that burned Santa Rosa has charred 34,270 acres and was 10 percent contained as of Thursday afternoon, while the Atlas Fire in Napa County spread to Solano County and burned 43,762 acres.

The Atlas Fire was only 3 percent contained and “very active,” Pimlott said.

“We are not out of this emergency, we’re not even close to being out of this emergency,” Cal OES Director Mark Ghilarducci said at the news conference.

Pimlott said fire officials are paying close attention to the areas of Calistoga, Sonoma, Middletown and Geyserville. Residents should be on alert for evacuation orders.

Calistoga Mayor Chris Canning said although his entire city was ordered to evacuate as of Wednesday afternoon because of approaching flames, fire crews have kept them at bay and no damage has been reported within the city limits.

Canning warned any residents trying to return to mandatory evacuation areas that they will be distracting from the firefighting effort.

“If you are not a first responder, you are not welcome,” he said.

Critical dry humidity and windy conditions are expected in Northern California as well as Santa Barbara through Ventura County and Los Angeles County through the weekend, Pimlott said.

“Our fires are going to continue to burn erratically and in any direction,” Pimlott said.

Bay City News Service contributed to this report.

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