Utility cuts power to 117,000 Californians over wildfire risk

Source: By Olga Rodriguez and Amy Taxin, Associated Press • Posted: Monday, October 26, 2020

Pacific Gas & Electric Co. cut power Sunday to more than 100,000 California customers and planned outages for many more to prevent the chance of sparking wildfires because of extreme fire weather.

More than 1 million people could be affected by planned outages as California braces for a return of gusty winds and bone-dry weather that carry the threat of downing or fouling power lines or other equipment, which in recent years have been blamed for igniting massive and deadly blazes.

Power was shut off Sunday for 117,000 customers in 18 Northern California counties and outages were expected to continue, affecting as many as 361,000 customers in all.

The National Weather Service issued red flag warnings for many areas, predicting winds of 35 mph or higher in San Francisco and lower elevations and up to 70 mph in some mountains. The concern is that any spark could be blown into flames sweeping through tinder-dry brush and forestland.

The conditions could equal those during devastating fires in California’s wine country in 2017 and last year’s Kincade Fire, the National Weather Service said. Fire officials said PG&E transmission lines sparked that Sonoma County fire last October, which destroyed hundreds of homes and caused nearly 100,000 people to flee.

Southern California saw cooler temperatures and patchy drizzle during the weekend, but weather conditions were expected to change dramatically overnight. Los Angeles County urged residents to sign up for emergency notifications and prepare to evacuate, preferably arranging to stay with family or friends in less risky areas who aren’t suspected to have the coronavirus.

“The reality is come midnight and through Tuesday we’re going to be in the most significant red flag conditions we’ve had this year,” said Kevin McGowan, director of the county’s Office of Emergency Management.

Southern California Edison announced on its website it was considering safety outages for 71,000 customers in six Southern California counties. San Bernardino County was expected to be the most affected by those potential cuts.

More than 8,600 wildfires have scorched well over 6,400 square miles and destroyed about 9,200 buildings in California this year. There have been 31 deaths.

All of the huge fires have been fully or significantly contained, but more than 5,000 firefighters remain committed to 20 blazes, including a dozen major incidents, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said.

Many of this year’s devastating fires were started by thousands of dry lightning strikes. But some of the fires remain under investigation for potential electrical causes.