Bankrupt utility owner PG&E Corp. issued an unprecedented warning that it may cut power in almost 30 California counties to avoid wildfires as hot, arid winds leave the region dry as a tinderbox.
The move may affect more than 600,000 customers across Northern and Central California, including Santa Clara, San Mateo, Napa and Alameda counties, according to a statement Tuesday. The shutoff could begin when winds peak early Wednesday and last through mid-Thursday.
“This is shaping up to be one of the most severe dry wind events we’ve seen in our territory in recent years,” Michael Lewis, senior vice president of PG&E Electric Operations, said in the statement. “It could take several days to fully restore power after the weather passes and safety inspections are completed.”
PG&E shares fell 2.7% at 9:35 a.m. in New York.
PG&E and other California utilities have been taking aggressive measures to keep equipment from sparking blazes after power lines ignited catastrophic fires in 2017 and 2018. For PG&E, the stakes are especially high. It already faces an estimated $30 billion in wildfire liabilities. Another major blaze sparked by its equipment could upend the company’s restructuring plans.
The National Weather Service has posted red flag warnings in parts of six western states, meaning the fire danger is high. In California, the warnings ring the Bay Area including Napa County, where the Tubbs fire killed at least 22 and destroyed more than 5,600 structures in October 2017.
A low-pressure system sweeping in from the north will pass east of the region, driving winds off the Sierra Nevada mountains that become hotter and drier as they approach the Pacific Ocean. It’s a common weather pattern this time of year, and September and October are historically the height of California’s fire season.
“The worst of it could very well be tomorrow, but some threat continues probably through Thursday,” said Marc Chenard, a senior branch forecaster with the U.S. Weather Prediction Center.
The risk of fire will also be high Thursday in portions of Southern California, which has suffered its own deadly blazes in recent years.
PG&E’s service warning includes parts of California’s most populous areas, including Santa Clara County’s almost 2 million people and Alameda County’s 1.7 million residents, according to state data.
The company began proactively cutting electricity last year to head off fire risk, and this would be the biggest shutoff to date based on the number of counties potentially affected.
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