Californians Endure Blackouts Again as Wildfire Threat Increases

By Mark Chediak, David R. Baker and Brian K. Sullivan | October 24, 2019

California utilities are once again cutting electricity to prevent wildfires, in the first stage of a mass blackout that could eventually leave more than a million people without power.

PG&E Corp. cut service Wednesday to 178,000 homes and businesses near Sacramento and Napa Valley. Utilities in Southern California have blacked out about 8,000 and warned that another 328,000 shutoffs could occur, as the threat of wildfires increases. In all, about 1.5 million people may be ultimately be affected, based on customer estimates and the average household size.

PG&E has been taking more extreme measures to prevent wildfires since its equipment sparked a series of blazes that devastated California in 2017 and 2018, saddling the state’s largest utility with an estimated $30 billion in liabilities and forcing it into bankruptcy. Two weeks ago, the company carried out the biggest planned blackout in California history, plunging 2 million people into darkness and igniting a debate over how far the state is willing to go to keep fires from happening.

“The only reason we do this is to protect human life,” PG&E Chief Executive Officer Bill Johnson said in a media briefing Wednesday. “We understand the hardship caused by these shutoffs, and the safety issues that come with it. But we also understand the heartbreak and devastation of catastrophic wildfires.”

While fire danger remains high across Northern California, the areas most prone to blazes Thursday morning were in Southern California, including in the Ventura Valley and near the San Gabriel and Santa Ana mountains, according to the U.S. Storm Prediction Center. Winds may slow on Friday, but are forecast to regain strength over the weekend as a front moves into the region bringing higher gusts and drier air.

“It is the worst of all scenarios,” said Bob Oravec, a senior branch forecaster at the U.S. Weather Prediction Center.

In the Los Angeles area, Edison International has cut power to 8,000 homes and businesses and warned it may do the same for 286,000 more. In San Diego, Sempra Energy blacked out about 20 customers but estimated 42,000 more could follow suit.

Once the winds have died down, utilities must inspect and repair lines before restoring service. PG&E has a goal of returning power to the vast majority of customers within 48 hours of the weather passing — potentially just in time for the next wind storm to hit.

The PG&E blackout that struck earlier this month drew outrage from residents and state officials who accused the utility of cutting service to more customers than necessary and failing to properly communicate its plans. The company has since vowed to improve communications.

PG&E’s equipment was identified as the cause of the Camp Fire in November 2018 that killed 86 people and destroyed the town of Paradise. It was the deadliest blaze in California history.

Johnson said this week’s shutoffs “don’t have anything to do with the quality of our system, or our vegetation management.” The risk of wildfires in PG&E’s territory has increased dramatically over the past several years due to drought and changes in weather patterns, he said.

–With assistance from Robert Tuttle.

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