Thousands of Californians Face Power Shutoffs Due to Wildfire Risk

By and | September 24, 2019

California utilities are warning that they may shut off electricity to thousands of customers across the state as hot, dry and windy weather raises the risk of another catastrophic wildfire sparked by a power line.

PG&E Corp., forced into bankruptcy in January after its equipment was blamed for two years of deadly fires, had already cut power to about 22,000 customers in the Sierra Nevada foothills Monday as gusts picked up. Even as PG&E crews worked Tuesday to restore service, the company warned that customers could get hit with another blackout later in the evening. In the mountains east of Los Angeles, Edison International’s Southern California Edison utility notified about 90,000 customers of possible shutoffs.

“Basically, the message we’d like to share with our customers in those counties is be prepared,” said PG&E spokesman Denny Boyles. “Check your cell phone batteries — everything.”

PG&E and other California utilities have been taking more aggressive measures to keep their equipment from sparking blazes after fallen power lines ignited a series of catastrophic fires across the state in 2017 and 2018. For PG&E, the stakes are especially high. Another fire sparked by its equipment threatens to upend its restructuring plans by creating new claims that would take priority over existing ones.

One of PG&E’s lines started the deadliest blaze in California history in 2018: the Camp Fire, which devastated the town of Paradise and killed 86.

“Now, we sometimes have to shut off power on purpose,” Villegas said. “That’s not the kind of situation we’re used to being in. But the fires the last two years, the scale, the size, the ferocity — it’s truly catastrophic stuff.”

Sempra Energy’s San Diego Gas & Electric said Tuesday that it didn’t anticipate shutting off any of its customers this week.

Both PG&E and Edison have already cut power multiple times this year in the hopes of preventing fires. Earlier this month, Edison turned off electricity to 14,000 customers near Mammoth Mountain in the eastern Sierras as a windstorm raked the area with gusts above 80 miles per hour, Villegas said. PG&E made a similar decision in June, cutting power to as many as 27,000 customers in the Sierra Foothills as high winds threatened to knock down electrical lines.

Preemptive shutoffs have drawn criticism from California state lawmakers and city officials, including the mayor of San Jose. They’ve raised concerns about impacts on businesses, emergency operations and vulnerable populations such as the elderly and disabled.

–With assistance from Dan Murtaugh.

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