California utility giant PG&E Corp. said it may cut the lights to more than 750,000 people across Northern California as the National Weather Service posted “red flag” warnings for high winds across the region.
The bankrupt power company said Tuesday it may need to shut off service in parts of 25 counties to keep live wires from getting knocked down and sparking fires amid high winds. The weather service warnings run from 4 a.m. New York time Wednesday to 7 a.m. Thursday.
PG&E has already provoked widespread outrage by conducting a series of mass blackouts last month that left millions of people in the dark for days. The utility is taking increasingly extreme measures to prevent blazes from breaking out after its equipment ignited fires in Northern California in 2017 and 2018, saddling it with an estimated $30 billion in liabilities and eventually forcing it into bankruptcy.
“Worsening dry conditions and expected high wind gusts pose an increased risk for damage and sparks on the electric system,” San Francisco-based PG&E said in its statement Monday.
The potential blackouts are expected to affect 303,000 homes and businesses in parts of densely populated North and East Bay areas near San Francisco, as well as the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. That amounts to well over 750,000 people based on the average size of a typical household in the utility’s territory.
PG&E has raised the tally for the number of potentially affected customers twice since warning of shutoffs this week. Earlier on Monday, the company had estimated that 250,000 customers may lose service.
A cold front will sweep out of the north across California bringing high winds with it. While it is not a typical Santa Ana or Diablo wind setup “the results will be the same,” said Patrick Burke, a senior branch forecaster at the U.S. Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland.
The region is quite dry and there is plenty of brush and grasses available to burn. In the canyons, winds could reach 60 miles per hour. “The danger is if you do get a fire started in those dry conditions it will spread very rapidly,” Burke said by telephone.
PG&E was preparing for more shutoffs just as its chief executive officer, Bill Johnson, appeared at a California Senate hearing to answer to last month’s blackouts. Lawmakers took turns skewering company executives at the hours-long meeting. Johnson said the utility had improved communications, was actively working to limit future cutoffs and planned to underground more lines.
California has had little rain for months, and more than 81% of the state is abnormally dry, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor in Lincoln, Nebraska. The parched plants and soils, along with the winds called Santa Anas and Diablos, make fall one of the worst times for fires there.
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“Most of northern and central California has not received any significant precipitation this fall and fire potential is well above normal,” PG&E said in a weather forecast.4
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