California Utilities Warn of Power Cuts on Risk of Wildfire

By Brian K. Sullivan | October 21, 2019

Almost two weeks after California utilities cut electricity to 2.3 million people, two major power providers warned they may have to halt supplies to thousands across California as strong, dry winds raise the wildfire threat across the state.

No major outages have occurred yet, but Edison International’s southern California unit has warned as many as 41,000 customers could lose power due to a wind storm forecast to last through Monday. Meanwhile, PG&E Corp., which serves northern and central California, said it’s also considering shutting power for safety reasons across portions of 17 counties with extreme weather forecast for Wednesday and Thursday.

“With the combination of dry air, gusty winds and dry soil conditions, we are going to see these fire conditions remain elevated going into early next week,” Andrew Orrison, a forecaster with the U.S. Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland, said by telephone.

Almost two weeks ago, PG&E Corp. blacked out 738,000 homes and businesses in an attempt to cut fire risk, prompting harsh criticism from customers and state politicians. At the time Edison also cut power to about 24,000 in its operating area.

Wildfires are a rising hazard across California and have caused major problems for the state’s electrical utilities. Two years of blazes helped push PG&E, the state’s biggest utility owner, into bankruptcy after its equipment was identified as the cause of raging blazes that included the Camp Fire in November 2018 that killed 86 people and destroyed an entire town.

The winds and low humidity have created critical conditions to the north and east of Los Angeles, including Santa Clarita and Burbank, according to the U.S. Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma. The danger will last at least until Monday and a wider area of Southern California has an enhanced risk of winds spreading fires.

Inside this weekend’s high-risk area is the Saddleridge Fire, a blaze that’s been burning for more than a week, has consumed almost 9,000 acres (3,642 hectares), and is 78% contained, according to the California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection, commonly called Cal Fire.

Across California, as well as nationally, the total acres consumed by wildfires has dropped this year, but the threat will remain until winter’s typical steady rain and snow arrives.

Through Oct. 13, California wildfires had consumed 162,693 acres, which lags the fire-year average of 372,066 acres, according to Cal Fire. Nationally, about 4.5 million acres have burned, below the 10-year average of 6.2 million acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

In the short term, the weather won’t be helping California, Orrison said. A high pressure system across the West is raising the fire risk both in California, as well as parts of Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas, the National Weather Service said.

“Certainly no rain over the weekend,” Orrison said. “The next time they could get rain is over a week from now and probably longer than that and that pretty much goes for the entire state of California. The threat of fires is going to tend to be ongoing as we go through the rest of the month out there.”

–With assistance from David R. Baker.

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