California is bracing for the most powerful winds of this year’s already devastating wildfire season, prompting utilities to cut power in wide swaths of the state to prevent live wires from falling into dry brush and sparking blazes.
In Northern California, PG&E Corp. plans to cut power to 386,000 homes and businesses — an estimated 1.2 million people — starting at 10 a.m. Sunday. In the south, Edison International said 73,428 customers could lose power — affecting more than 200,000 people beginning Monday.
The outages are the latest blow for a state that’s been battered by violent weather and has already seen a record 4.1 million acres (1.66 million hectares) scorched this year. PG&E has already cut power four times in 2020 to prevent falling wires from igniting blazes in a region that’s tinder dry from heat and drought. The new round of outages are the biggest by far, stretching across much of PG&E’s service territory. Across Northern California, an estimated 4.2 million people are at risk from extreme fire conditions, according to the National Weather Service.
“This event looks particularly dangerous due to a combination of factors that we continue to track,” said Scott Strenfel, PG&E’s head of meteorology and fire science. Bone dry air will accompany the strong winds that are expected to pick up throughout the day on Sunday, he said.
Winds are forecast to reach 70 miles (113 kilometers) per hour in the northern part of the state, with gusts expected to last through Tuesday morning. By Monday, humidity will be as low as 6% in Redding and just 5% in Grass Valley, according to the National Weather Service. It comes as the state is already riddled with dry brush and grasses due to some of the warmest temperatures record over the last nine months, according to the U.S. National Centers for Environmental Information.
PG&E’s outages are poised to hit 38 counties that include the San Francisco Bay area, the Sierra Nevada foothills, the Central Valley and the Central Coast. A final decision on the blackout will be made Sunday morning.
The blackouts may hit densely populated parts of the San Francisco metropolitan area, including portions of Oakland, Berkeley and Marin County — cutting power to many residents as they are working from home due to the coronavirus pandemic. The city of Berkeley advised residents living in the hills to evacuate due to the fire risk, according to a statement.
San Francisco, at relatively low risk of fires, is the only county in the Bay Area region not expected to be affected.
PG&E and Southern California Edison aren’t the only utilities warning of outages. Pacific Power, owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., said Friday that it could switch off power for about 5,800 customers in Northern California and Southern Oregon on Sunday due to the gusts, according to a statement.
Much of the U.S. West is at risk from wildfires as dry weather and stiff winds turn hillsides, forests and scrub land into tinderboxes. In Colorado, two of the largest fires in state history have forced the closure of Rocky Mountain National Park and triggered the evacuation of nearby towns.
More than 8 million people across California will be in high-risk zones, including the cities of Sacramento, Stockton, and San Bernardino, the U.S. Storm Prediction Center said in its long-range forecast.
The looming outages come on the heels of a blistering heat wave that gripped California earlier this month, driving temperatures to record daily highs. In August, a freak lightning storm sparked more than 150 wildfires in 24 hours. Days before that, the state’s grid operator ordered the first rotating outages since the Enron-era energy crisis of 2001 as scorching weather sent electricity demand surging.
PG&E began resorting to preventative shutoffs after its equipment caused some of California’s worst blazes, forcing the company into bankruptcy last year. PG&E emerged from Chapter 11 in July after having paid $25.5 billion to resolve fire claims.
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