Winds Whip California as 2.5 Million People Face Power Cuts

By David R. Baker and Mark Chediak | October 29, 2019

California utilities are warning they may cut electricity to as many as 2.5 million people to prevent power lines from sparking fires as some of the strongest winds of the season hit the state.

High winds Tuesday will leave more than 17 million people facing critical fire weather conditions, according to the U.S. Storm Prediction Center. PG&E Corp. announced power shutoffs that will affect as many as 596,000 homes and businesses in Northern California. In the southern part of the state, Edison International warned it could do the same to 205,000 customers. And Sempra Energy may cut power to almost 33,000 near San Diego.

The blackouts, California’s fourth this month, are intended to prevent live wires from falling into brush and sparking fires as arid winds leave the region bone dry. At least 10 large wildfires are already burning across the state, prompting hundreds of thousands of evacuations near Los Angeles and in Sonoma County. Some PG&E customers have been without power for days.

“It is the weather — it’s not something we can control,” PG&E utility chief Andy Vesey said in a media briefing Monday night.

California utilities have been resorting to mass blackouts this year after deadly blazes in 2017 and 2018 were blamed on PG&E power lines. The fires saddled the company with an estimated $30 billion in liabilities, forcing it to file for bankruptcy in January. The deliberate outages are drawing widespread ire, and fires continue to spread in the driving winds.

The most powerful winds will be in Southern California, where the Getty fire has scorched more than 600 acres and spurred thousands of evacuations around Los Angeles. Northern California will see less extreme conditions but faces gusts strong enough to fan the flames of wildfires already burning, according to the U.S. Storm Prediction Center.

More than 3 million people were hit by PG&E blackouts over the weekend. By early Tuesday, the company had restored power to more than half of those customers. Others may not get their power back by the time Tuesday’s outage hits.

PG&E’s power lines are already being probed in connection with some of this year’s fires.

On Monday, the company disclosed its equipment may have sparked two small blazes in the San Francisco Bay Area. And the Kincade fire in Sonoma County was reported minutes after a PG&E line in the area malfunctioned. It has burned more than 75,000 acres and destroyed 124 structures as of early Tuesday.

Firefighters have not determined the cause of any of those blazes.

PG&E gained as much as 24% Tuesday after the judge overseeing its bankruptcy ordered victims of previous wildfires to enter into mediation with the company. The utility’s shares fell 24% Monday as blazes spread.

As fires engulfed hillsides, scrub land and vineyards, smoke is drifting into cities. Commuters in San Francisco wore face masks Monday to protect against the fumes. Oakland had the fourth-worst air quality in the U.S. Monday.

The fires could cause $25.4 billion in property damage, according to an estimate by Chuck Watson, a disaster modeler at Enki Research. The Kincade fire could reach $10.6 billion. In Southern California, the tally could be $14.8 billion, mainly from the Tick, Getty and Saddle Ridge blazes near Los Angeles.

–With assistance from Christopher Martin, Brian Eckhouse, John Gittelsohn and Dave Merrill.

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