Pacific Gas & Electric began turning off power to more than 50,000 Northern California customers Wednesday evening as dry, windy conditions renew the threat of fire in a season already marked by deadly, devastating blazes.
The utility announced that it had begun cutting power to up to 33,000 customers, with about another 20,000 to follow in a few hours.
The shut-offs will affect nearly two dozen counties, mostly in the Sierras and San Francisco Bay Area, and could last 48 hours.
Preemptive electricity cuts are a strategy aimed at preventing fires from being started by power lines that have been damaged or knocked down amid high winds. PG&E equipment sparked several massive blazes that destroyed tens of thousands of homes and killed more than 100 people since 2017.
“These are challenging times. Not only are we right in the peak of the wildfire season ... many of us are working from home, schooling from home as well. We recognize that hardships are introduced when we shut off power,” said Mark Quinlan, PG&E’s incident commander. “It’s our last resort option.”
The figure represents about 1% of PG&E’s 5.1 million customers. The nation’s largest utility said last month that it is using smarter and shorter power shut-offs after receiving widespread criticism from the public and regulators last year when it turned off electricity to 2 million people to prevent its equipment from sparking wildfires.
A second shut-off for around 700 customers was expected Thursday afternoon in far northern counties as winds were expected to arrive there.
Hundreds of firefighters from across the state were being deployed to Northern California.
Most of the huge fires that erupted over the past eight weeks are now fully or significantly contained and skies once stained orange by heavy smoke are blue again. Containment means that firefighters have lines holding in a fire, though it doesn’t mean a fire has stopped burning.
But the gains made by thousands of firefighters assigned to the blazes that have scorched more than 4.1 million acres this year could be hampered if new fires ignite, said Daniel Berlant, assistant deputy director with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire.
“If a new fire breaks out, that fire will be able to grow very quickly under these conditions,” Berlant said.
The National Weather Service issued a red-flag warning for extreme fire danger from 5 a.m. through Friday morning. With bone-dry humidity and wind possibly hitting 55 mph, Pacific Gas & Electric, the largest utility in the nation, warned people about the Wednesday evening cuts and deployed generators and other measures to keep electricity flowing in some areas, Quinlan said.
Denise Bethune lost her home of 12 years last month after a blaze razed her tiny foothills community of Berry Creek, about 260 kilometres northeast of San Francisco in rural Butte County. The night before, PG&E cut off power and she and her husband couldn’t use their well to get water and hose down their home.
Bethune, who has multiple sclerosis, said cutting power is a double-edged sword because it can help prevent fires from starting but it causes other issues.
“Whenever there is a power outage, my main concern is the heat because I can’t handle it without air conditioning due to my medical needs,” she said.
Since being displaced, Bethune, her husband and three dogs have been living in a trailer they parked on her son’s orchard near the city of Chico that has its own power source.
All power should be restored by late Friday night, the utility said.
The Glass Fire that ravaged the Northern California wine country of Napa and Sonoma counties was surrounded Wednesday after destroying more than 1,500 homes and other buildings.
Farther north, the Zogg Fire in Shasta and Tehama counties was fully contained. Four people died in that blaze.
More than 8,500 wildfires have burned more than 16,000 square kilometres in California since the start of the year, most since mid-August. Thirty-one people have died, and more than 9,200 buildings have been destroyed.
Numerous studies have linked bigger wildfires in America to climate change from the burning of coal, oil and gas. Scientists have said climate change has made California much drier, meaning trees and other plants are more flammable.
PG&E said last month that it is using smarter and shorter power shut-offs after receiving widespread criticism from the public and regulators last year when it turned off electricity to 2 million people to prevent its equipment from sparking wildfires.
PG&E’s aging equipment sparked the deadly 2018 fire that destroyed much of the town of Paradise and killed 85 people.
The utility pleaded guilty in June to 84 felony counts of involuntary manslaughter – one death was ruled a suicide – and paid $25.5-billion in settlements to cover the losses from that and other recent power line-sparked catastrophes.
Experts say nine out 10 wildfires are caused by people either accidentally or deliberately.
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