500K-Plus Californians Lose Power; Large Wildfire Rages

By , and | October 24, 2019

More than half a million people have lost power across California as part of a deliberate blackout designed to keep power lines from igniting wildfires. Meanwhile, a major blaze has already erupted.

PG&E Corp. and other utilities have cut service to nearly 200,000 homes and businesses in shutoffs that could eventually affect 1.5 million people as windstorms threatens to knock down power lines. About 80 miles north of San Francisco, a fire ripped through more than 10,000 acres in Sonoma County in just hours.

PG&E has been taking more extreme measures to prevent wildfires since its equipment sparked a series of blazes that devastated California in 2017 and 2018, saddling the state’s largest utility with an estimated $30 billion in liabilities and forcing it into bankruptcy. Two weeks ago, the company carried out the biggest planned blackout in California history, plunging 2 million people into darkness and triggering a debate over how far the state is willing to go to keep fires from happening.

As the fire burned in Sonoma County Thursday, PG&E shares slid as much as much as 13%. The blaze, called the Kincade fire, is north of Geyserville in PG&E’s service territory. But the power had been cut off before the fire began, according to a spokeswoman for the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office. The cause hasn’t been determined, she said.

The blaze, in a sparsely populated area of Wine Country, burned two structures and remained uncontained at 7 a.m. local time. About 300 people were told to evacuate, the sheriff’s spokeswoman said.

A PG&E spokesman said the blaze is near PG&E’s shutoff “footprint.” He referred questions about the blaze to state fire officials. The company has cut power to 178,000 homes and businesses as part of its shutoff.

While fire danger remains high across Northern California, the areas most prone to blazes Thursday morning were in Southern California, including near the San Gabriel and Santa Ana mountains, according to the U.S. Storm Prediction Center. Winds may slow on Friday, but are forecast to regain strength over the weekend as a front moves into the region bringing higher gusts and drier air.

“It is the worst of all scenarios,” said Bob Oravec, a senior branch forecaster at the U.S. Weather Prediction Center.

In the Los Angeles area, Edison International has cut power to nearly 16,000 homes and businesses and warned it may do the same for 286,000 more. In San Diego, Sempra Energy blacked out about 400 customers but estimated 42,000 more could follow suit.

Once the winds have died down, utilities must inspect and repair lines before restoring service. PG&E has a goal of returning power to the vast majority of customers within 48 hours of the weather passing — potentially just in time for the next wind storm to hit.

The PG&E blackout that struck earlier this month drew outrage from residents and state officials who accused the utility of cutting service to more customers than necessary and failing to properly communicate its plans. The company has since vowed to improve communications.

PG&E’s equipment was identified as the cause of the Camp Fire in November 2018 that killed 86 people and destroyed the town of Paradise. It was the deadliest blaze in California history.

PG&E Chief Executive Officer Bill Johnson said this week’s shutoffs “don’t have anything to do with the quality of our system, or our vegetation management.” The risk of wildfires in PG&E’s territory has increased dramatically over the past several years due to drought and changes in weather patterns, he said.

–With assistance from Robert Tuttle and Will Wade.

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