Mass Blackouts Across California Are Coming to an End — For Now

By Brian K. Sullivan, David R. Baker and Michael B. Marois | November 1, 2019

A series of deliberate blackouts that affected millions of Californians this month is coming to an end. But wildfire season is far from over.

Fierce winds that sweep in from the east each fall can whiplash the state through December, ending only when winter storms coming off the Pacific Ocean drench California’s lowlands with rains and its mountains with snow. Still, with the weather turning more favorable late Thursday, Californians expressed relief that the recent upheaval seems to be ending.

About 300,000 people statewide remained without power by mid-day Thursday, down from millions earlier in the week. And the state’s two biggest utilities, PG&E Corp. and Edison International, said they planned to restore power to everyone by end-of-day Friday. Still, several large wildfires are raging across the state.

“The good news is that we are turning the corner,” Governor Gavin Newsom said in a briefing at a Sacramento-area school that had been powerless for part of the week. “Wind conditions are more favorable not just today and tonight, but we anticipate into the weekend.”

“Red Flag” warnings covering the state were set to be lifted as early as 6 p.m. local time Thursday, according to the U.S. Weather Prediction Center. The improvement comes a day after Santa Ana gusts reached as high as 76 miles (126 kilometers) per hour in mountains near Los Angeles, the center said.

PG&E was the first of the utilities to cut off electricity. Their equipment had sparked wildfires in Northern California in 2017 and 2018, saddling the company with an estimated $30 billion in liabilities and eventually forcing it into bankruptcy. The utility blacked out about 3 million residents last weekend as the high winds arrived, saying it had no other option. It carried out another blackout on Tuesday, and utilities in the southern part of the state followed suit on Wednesday.

In his Thursday briefing, Newsom said about 130,000 homes and businesses remained blacked out statewide. On Wednesday, PG&E said it expected all of its remaining customers to be restored by late Thursday. An Edison spokesman said his company hopes to have all of its customers re-energized on Friday.

While the extreme winds were forecast to ease, wildfire risks will remain high through Friday, according to the U.S. Storm Prediction Center. The Kincade Fire north of San Francisco remains the largest, scorching 77,000 acres. It is 60% contained, Newsom said in his briefing, and the state is starting to redeploy fire fighting crews to other fires.

In Ventura County, a fire that erupted shortly before dawn on Wednesday has spread to 1,700 acres, prompting evacuations. The nearby Ronald Reagan Presidential Library was saved from flames by massive water drops from firefighting aircraft.

In neighboring Los Angeles County, the Getty fire that began on Monday has now scorched 745 acres. An evacuation order affecting about 20,000 residents near that blaze has been lifted after being in place for three days.

There are still weeks to go in California’s wildfire season. The deadliest and most destructive blaze, the Camp Fire, killed 85 and consumed 18,804 structures in November, 2018, and the second largest by acreage, the Thomas Fire, occurred in December 2017

PG&E’s power lines are already being probed in connection with some of this year’s fires, including the Kincade blaze in Sonoma County. It was reported minutes after a PG&E line went down. Edison has reported equipment malfunctions at the time of two big blazes that have broken out in Southern California.

About the photo: Firefighter Josh Petrell monitors the Kincade Fire burning near Healdsburg, Calif., on Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019. The overall weather picture in northern areas is improving as powerful, dry winds bring extreme fire weather to Southern California. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

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