Californians face biggest power shut-offs this year on wildfire risk
PG&E Corp may pre-emptively cut power to 466,000 homes and businesses -- an estimated 1.4 million people -- across Northern California starting early Sunday, according to its website. The outages are poised to hit large swaths of the San Francisco Bay area, the Sierra Nevada foothills, the Central Valley and the Central Coast.Updated: Oct 24, 2020, 17:14 IST
Californians are facing the largest mass blackout so far this year as the state’s biggest utility, PG&E Corp., prepares power shut-offs to prevent its equipment from igniting wildfires during ferocious winds.
The company may pre-emptively cut power to 466,000 homes and businesses -- an estimated 1.4 million people -- across Northern California starting early Sunday, according to its website. The outages are poised to hit large swaths of the San Francisco Bay area, the Sierra Nevada foothills, the Central Valley and the Central Coast.
The potential blackouts would be the latest blow for a state that’s been battered by extreme weather and has already seen a record 4.1 million acres scorched this year. PG&E has pre-emptively 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 would be the biggest by far, stretching across 38 counties.
Winds starting this weekend 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. Weather extremes are colliding to make for particularly dangerous conditions, said Scott Strenfel, PG&E’s head of meteorology and fire science.
California is facing “extremely high winds, extremely low humidity, extreme dry fuels due to the hottest average temperatures over the last six months, according to records that go back 126 years, and extreme drought across the territory given lack of rainfall,” Strenfel said in a statement.
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. San Francisco, at relatively low risk of fires, is the only county in the Bay Area region not expected to be affected.
PG&E isn’t the only utility 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 US 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. And in Utah, Berkshire’s Rocky Mountain Power warned earlier this week it may cut power to about 1,800 customers in Sundance and Summit Park due to fire risk.
More than 3.1 million people across California will be in high-risk zones, including the cities of Sacramento, Stockton, and Fairfield, the US 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 shut-offs 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.
“They have a lot of work to do not just to restore their power but to restore the trust that they have failed to earn over the course of decades,” Governor Gavin Newsom said during a briefing Friday. “That is self-evident to anyone living in the Bay Area.”