More California Fires Erupt as Dry Winds Make State a Tinderbox

Source: By Mark Chediak, Brian K Sullivan, and David R Baker< Bloomberg • Posted: Monday, September 28, 2020

Another round of wildfires erupted in Northern California, forcing evacuations and casting palls of smoke over the region as hot, arid weather and high winds leave the state perilously dry.

The blazes in Napa and Shasta counties flared even after the state’s largest utility, PG&E Corp., cut power to about 195,000 people in an attempt to keep its electric lines from sparking blazes.

Across California, more than 36,000 square miles — an area larger than the entire state of Indiana — is under threat from critical fire conditions, affecting about 5.8 million people, the U.S. Storm Prediction Center said. And blazes are spreading fast, fanned by dry winds of 30 to 40 miles per hour, with gusts as high as 60 mph.

“Any fires that develop will likely spread rapidly,” the National Weather Service said.

California has been battered for weeks by rounds of extreme weather fueled by climate change. Last month, a record-breaking heat wave triggered the state’s first rotating power outages since the 2001 energy crisis — and was followed just three weeks later by another one. More than 8,000 wildfires have burned a record 3.7 million acres this year, choking cities with smoke, killing at least 26 people and destroying more than 7,000 structures.

In Napa County, the Glass Fire broke out early Sunday and was raging uncontrollably, scorching at least 2,500 acres. The Zogg Fire in Shasta County burned 7,000 acres. Both prompted evacuations.

Butte County issued an immediate evacuation order for some communities on Sunday due to the ongoing North Complex Fire.

Nearly half the state is under an air quality alert. Smoke from the new blazes is already reaching Bay Area cities that have been choked for weeks by bad air from blazes across the region.

While winds are forecast to ebb late Monday, potentially giving firefighters a break, the heat will continue. High temperatures in Sacramento are expected to hit 99 degrees Fahrenheit (37 Celsius) on Monday and rise to 101 degrees by Wednesday. Los Angeles may hit 101 on Wednesday.

Read More: California Governor Says ‘This Is a Climate Damn Emergency’

Utilities across the U.S. West are increasingly cutting power ahead of wind storms to reduce the chances of their live wires igniting blazes. In Southern California, investigators are looking at a power line owned by Edison International’s Southern California Edison as part of their probe into a fire that’s burning in the mountains near Los Angeles.

PG&E — the utility giant that went bankrupt last year after its equipment ignited catastrophic blazes — began shutting off power on Sunday to parts of 16 counties.

Sempra Energy’s San Diego Gas & Electric said Sunday it may also have to turn off power to 700 customers in the mountainous areas of San Diego County due to the expected arrival of Santa Ana winds.

PG&E’s latest move will affect about 65,000 homes and businesses, or about 195,000 people based on the size of the average California household. The first cuts began early Sunday. A second round was planned for later in the night, PG&E said in a briefing. All customers should have their power back on by the end of the day on Monday, the company said.

The outages are considerably smaller in scope than previous ones. Earlier this month, PG&E cut power to about 172,000 homes and businesses — or about 516,000 people — as high winds raked California. PG&E emerged from bankruptcy in July after settling wildfire claims for $25.5 billion.

California’s peak wildfire season traditionally runs from September through November. It has grown longer and less predictable in recent years, with blazes coming as late as December.

— With assistance by Stephen Stapczynski