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Lights out? PG&E plans to shut off power for more than 800K customers in California to reduce wildfire risk


Renewed winds are presenting challenges for crews battling a stubborn wildfire near a Southern California neighborhood. The fire that broke out Wednesday on rural land in Riverside County grew to more than 2 square miles. (Sept. 6)

More than 800,000 subscribers in California will be left in the dark for days as the state’s leading utility shuts off power to parts of 34 counties to reduce the risk of wildfires in dry and windy conditions.

Pacific Gas and Electric said blackouts across parts of northern, central and coastal California would start early Wednesday morning shortly after midnight in the largest preventive outage in state history.

Because every customer account could represent service to multiple residents or employees in a business, the number of people affected by the outages could be in the millions.

With winds between 40 mph and 70 mph expected Wednesday and Thursday, PGE is trying to avoid downed power lines or contact with vegetation setting off fires. Some of California’s most destructive blazes in recent years were started by PGE power lines. 

Nearly all nine counties in the San Francisco Bay Area could be subjected to the shutdowns, the only exception being the city and county of San Francisco.

In addition, Southern California Edison said more than 170,000 customers could face power cuts in eight counties it serves, including more than 49,000 in Los Angeles County.

Class-action lawsuit: Was California wildfire caused by Pacific Gas Electric?

Michael Lewis, senior vice president of PGE’s electric operations, said it could take “several days to fully restore power after the weather passes and safety inspections are completed.”

The beleaguered utility, which filed for bankruptcy earlier this year after a series of wildfires left it with billions of dollars in liabilities, further incurred its customers’ wrath when its website crashed amid heavy traffic, preventing subscribers from finding information about the blackouts. 

“This is shaping up to be one of the most severe dry wind events we’ve seen in our territory in recent years,” PGE said in a statement. “We want our customers to be prepared for an extended outage that may last several days.”

AccuWeather noted that while some Santa Ana wind events usher in hot and arid air, the winds affecting most of California this week should bring in somewhat cooler air that could ease the threat of a major wildfire outbreak.

“However, the combination of dry air, dry brush and gusty winds will significantly raise the chance of wildfire ignition,” AccuWeather senior meteorologist Alex Sosnowski said.

PGE’s meteorological and operations teams were monitoring the “evolving situation” and were working with state and local agencies to prepare the public, Lewis said. 

He warned that customers may be affected by a power shutoff even if they are not experiencing extreme weather conditions in their specific location because of the way power lines work in unison across cities, counties and regions.

Residents of the Golden State lined up at gas stations and headed to stores to buy generators, flashlights, batteries and non-perishable food.

Jennifer Siemens, whose home burnt down in a devastating fire in the Northern California town of Paradise that was blamed on PGE transmission lines, said she’s now renting in nearby Oroville and is preparing for her third power shutdown in a month.

Siemens said the outages scare her children, who were traumatized during the massive Paradise blaze, and also affect the family’s cleaning business.

“What’s wrong with the power lines that they have to do this so much?” asked Siemens. “We don’t want any more fires, obviously, but I feel like they are going a little overboard.”

PGE ordered a much smaller power cutoff in June involving thousands of customers in the Northern California counties of Napa, Solano and Yolo.

The utility has drawn blame for igniting several wildfires caused by downed power lines that killed dozens and destroyed thousands of homes. In June, PGE agreed to pay $1 billion in damages to local governments.

More than half the settlement was related to the Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and destroyed more than 13,000 homes while nearly wiping out Paradise.

Contributing: Kristin Lam, USA TODAY; Gabrielle Paluch, Palm Springs Desert Sun; The Associated Press

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