High winds pose a greater threat of wildfires in California resulting in one of the largest preemptive power blackouts in the state's history as dry conditions are expected to raise the risk for millions of people in the coming days.
The outages could start early Wednesday morning, Pacific Gas & Electric said in a press release Tuesday. The utility said the shutoffs were being considered based on a fire weather watch from the National Weather Service.
PG&E, which has 5 million customers in California, said the shutoffs could impact nearly 800,000 customers in 34 northern, central and coastal counties.
PG&E spokesman Jason King told weather.com Monday that any outages would affect "portions of those counties." He could not speculate on the probability of all of PG&E's customers in the affected areas being without power at the same time.
Portions of the West Coast and the Southeast are under threat for wildfires, according to the National Weather Service. California utility Pacific Gas & Electric says its customers in 34 counties could face preemptive power outages later this week.
"What we're working on right now is determining if and where we'll need to turn off power in the interest of public safety," King said. "Our meteorology and our operations teams are monitoring conditions in real time. (A) determination hasn't (been) made yet what portions of each of the counties will be turned off."
A power shutoff over the weekend affected 10,300 PG&E customers in Butte, Plumas and Yuba counties, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. Those three counties are also included in the new alert.
In addition to the 800,000 or so PG&E customers who could be impacted by blackouts, more than 100,000 Southern California Edison customers in eight counties could also see preventive outages in southern portions of the state, according to the Associated Press.
Windy conditions can cause power lines to spark fires when they are blown down or to come into contact with trees or other vegetation. PG&E power lines have been blamed for several high profile fires in recent years, including the blaze that killed 86 people last year in Paradise, California.
Hundreds of thousands of California homes and businesses started to lose electric power early Wednesday as part of an unprecedented effort by Pacific Gas and Electric Co. to prevent wildfires, the utility said. Nearly 800,000 northern and central California homes and businesses can expect to lose electricity for up to several days, starting on Wednesday, PG&E said. State investigators determined in May that PG&E transmission lines had caused last year's Camp Fire. That fire killed 85 people, making it the deadliest in California's history.
The company had already filed for bankruptcy protection by then, citing potential liabilities of more than $30 billion from the Camp Fire and the 2017 North Bay Fires. Conditions before the fires were about the same then as they are now in the region. Gale-force winds are expected to last through midday Thursday, with gusts up to 70 miles per hour, PG&E said. Humidity is low, leaving the air extremely dry.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) said "red-flag" warnings were posted across the entire state for what was shaping up to be the strongest wind so far this season. Consequently, PG&E said on Tuesday it was extending a previously announced "public safety power shutoff" to 34 counties, more than half of all the counties in California. It's the largest such precautionary outage the utility has undertaken to date. Once power is turned off, it cannot be restored until the winds subside, allowing the utility to inspect equipment for damage and make any repairs, PG&E said.
The first phase of the outages, affecting about 513,000 customers in northern California, began after midnight, PG&E said in an early morning release. Depending on the weather, additional outages will continue at noon, the company said. "We're telling customers to be prepared for an outage that could last several days," PG&E spokeswoman Tamar Sarkissian told Reuters.
Some consumer advocates have objected to the precautionary disruptions, saying they can harm people who need electricity for medical equipment. But PG&E promised to open community centers in 30 locations across the planned outage zone to furnish restrooms, bottled water, battery charging and air-conditioned seating during daytime hours. Sarkissian said PG&E had placed 45 helicopter crews and 700 extra ground personnel on standby for inspections and repairs once the wind dies down. Some equipment locations will require workers to hike into remote or mountainous areas, she said.