California Outages Open New Chapter in State’s Climate Fight

Source: By Mark Chediak and Brian K. Sullivan, Bloomberg • Posted: Monday, October 26, 2020

Just two months after a summer heat wave prompted the region’s first rolling blackouts in almost two decades, the state’s largest utility has cut power again, affecting an estimated 1.1 million people. This time, it’s to prevent live wires from toppling into dry brush and sparking blazes as the violent winds rattled Northern California.

PG&E Corp. shut off electricity to 225,000 homes and businesses in areas mostly north of San Francisco on Sunday and was set to turn off power to an additional 136,000 customers in places including the East Bay and South Bay in the evening. By Monday, gusts exceeding 70 miles (112 kilometers) an hour swept through areas already bone-dry from heat and drought. Utilities in Southern California warned they may need to cut power, too.

It’s some of most dangerous weather the state has seen since the Camp Fire erupted in 2018, killing 85 people.

“The strongest winds are occurring now,” Chris Hintz, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Sacramento, said Monday morning.

At least three blazes broke out north of Sacramento on Sunday, but they were largely contained by nightfall, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. PG&E said it may restore power starting Monday afternoon, though some customers may be left in the dark through Tuesday.

The brutal winds, fires and blackouts are the latest blow for a state that’s been battered by violent weather and has already seen a record 4.1 million acres (1.66 million hectares) scorched this year, which cost $1.1 billion to battle. State officials say that climate change is bringing more intense and frequent heat waves and drought, making California more vulnerable to catastrophic fires.

“This is the fire weather forecast I was hoping wouldn’t come to pass, given all that has already transpired in 2020,” climate scientist Daniel Swain tweeted before the power cuts.

The winds, fueled by a winter storm moving through the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains, were gusting as high as 89 mph in Northern California late Sunday night.

PG&E has already cut power multiple times in 2020 to prevent falling wires from igniting blazes after a scorching summer and autumn. This round is the biggest yet. The outages will hit 36 counties that include the San Francisco Bay area, the Sierra Nevada foothills, the Central Valley and the Central Coast.

The blackouts are hitting densely populated parts of the San Francisco metropolitan area, including portions of Oakland, Berkeley and Marin County — cutting power to many residents working from home due to the coronavirus pandemic. The city of Berkeley advised residents living in the hills to evacuate due to the fire risk, according to a statement.

In Southern California, Edison International said about 71,000 customers could lose power beginning Monday. That’s about 213,000 people based on the size of the average California household. Sempra Energy’s San Diego Gas & Electric Co. is considering about 21,000 outages.

Climate change — especially the impact on California — has become one of the focal points of the upcoming election. Earlier this month, President Donald Trump granted the state’s request to declare a major disaster in seven counties hit by this year’s historic fire season, shortly after rejecting it. He has repeatedly blamed poor forest management for the fires.

Much of the U.S. West is at risk from wildfires as stiff winds turn hillsides, forests and scrub land into tinderboxes. In Colorado, two of the largest fires in state history have forced the closure of Rocky Mountain National Park and triggered the evacuation of nearby towns.

PG&E began resorting to preventative shutoffs after its equipment caused some of California’s worst blazes, forcing the company into bankruptcy last year. PG&E emerged from Chapter 11 in July after paying $25.5 billion to resolve fire claims.