California Blackouts Spread South as Fire Risk Follows the Wind

Even as winds subside in Northern California and PG&E Corp. prepares to restore electricity, blackouts are spreading south in a massive effort to keep falling power lines from igniting , .

More than half a million people across the state have now lost power. As winds shift south, , and Sempra Energy have increased their outages to include more than 34,000 homes and businesses near Los Angeles and San Diego. They warn more may come.

California’s three major utilities are taking extreme measures to prevent wildfires since equipment owned by the largest one, PG&E, sparked a series of blazes that devastated California in 2017 and 2018, saddling it with an estimated $30 billion in liabilities and forcing the company into bankruptcy. The state’s governor, Gavin Newsom, blasted the utilities Thursday, saying the blackouts are the result of “corporate greed” and failure to invest enough in safety.

“They will be held to account,” Newsom said during a media briefing. “They better step things up. This is simply unacceptable.”

The blackouts come as driving winds prompt the National Weather Service to issue fire warnings across vast swaths of California. Slowing winds in the north are allowing PG&E to begin inspecting lines in preparation to restore power to the 179,000 homes and businesses it disconnected.

But even as work begins to turn the lights back on, a fire raging amid the vineyards of Sonoma County prompted authorities to order more than 2,000 people to evacuate. The blaze, called the Kincade fire, is north of Geyserville in PG&E’s service territory. The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office said the power had been cut off in the area before the fire broke out.

PG&E, which filed for Chapter 11 in January, said the blaze was near one of its shutoff zones. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that the utility said its high-voltage transmission lines in the area were still operating when the fire ignited. The cause remains under investigation, the state’s fire agency said.

The company’s shares slid 12% Thursday. The selloff underscores that investors are concerned PG&E’s equipment could be linked to yet another blaze — even though the cause has yet to be determined, said Katie Bays, an analyst and co founder of the firm Sandhill Strategy.

A new crop of wildfire liabilities could derail PG&E’s plan to reorganize because new claims would likely be paid out in full, potentially reducing the payout to existing creditors, Bays said.

While fire danger remains high across Northern California, the areas most prone to blazes Thursday were in the south, including near the San Gabriel and Santa Ana mountains, according to the U.S. Storm Prediction Center. All told, Edison warns it may still cut power to 286,000 more homes and businesses. Sempra’s blackouts could spread to more than 35,000.

Northern California, however, isn’t in the clear yet. The forecast calls for an even stronger round of winds 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.