California Power Outages: Fire Danger Prompts Utility to Cut Electricity – The New York Times

U.S.|California Power Outages: Fire Danger Prompts Utility to Cut Electricity

An intentional shut-off by Pacific Gas & Electric, the largest utility in the state, could affect as many as 800,000 customers.


CreditCreditJim Wilson/The New York Times

Thomas Fuller

Large swaths of central and Northern California were expected to be without electricity on Wednesday as the state’s largest utility planned to cut power as a safety precaution. The utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, said that around 800,000 customers would be affected in stages, from the doorstep of Silicon Valley to the foothills of the Sierra.

Extreme winds are expected on Wednesday and Thursday. Peak wildfire season has arrived in California, with a combination of high winds and low humidity creating conditions for potentially catastrophic fires. Pacific Gas & Electric says it is proactively shutting off power to prevent its equipment from sparking a blaze.

The company has been found responsible for dozens of wildfires in recent years, including the state’s deadliest, an inferno in and around the town of Paradise last November that killed 86 people.

Over the summer the utility turned off power to less-populated areas in Northern California, but this is by far the most extensive shut-off the company has carried out, affecting large parts of the San Francisco Bay Area.

More than half of all counties in California — 34 out of 58 — are expected to be affected by the power cut, according to PG&E, one of the country’s largest utilities.

PG&E anticipates that it will begin turning power back on starting Thursday, when winds subside.

But re-energizing power lines is a tricky process, even after the winds subside. Sumeet Singh, a PG&E vice president, said in a briefing Tuesday night that technicians will need to inspect “every inch” of line before restoring power. That could take as long as five days, he said.

Shoppers emptied supermarket shelves of batteries, water and other essentials on Wednesday while power was still on. The East Bay Municipal Utility District, a water utility, said its pumping capacity would be affected by the shut-off and urged its customers to minimize water use and turn off their irrigation systems.

Cities are positioning traffic officers near large intersections to direct traffic. In Oakland, all police officers were ordered to report for duty on Wednesday.

Officials said they were concerned about older residents with conditions that required medical equipment.

Stores in Northern California reported higher-than-usual sales of gasoline generators over the summer. PG&E established around 30 facilities stocked with bottled water and outlets to charge electronic devices.

The main mass transit systems serving the San Francisco Bay Area — BART and Caltrain — said they would maintain service.

A number of schools in San Jose and Oakland said they would close for as long as there was no power. The University of California, Berkeley, canceled classes on Wednesday.

PG&E, which filed for bankruptcy in January in the face of tens of billions of dollars in wildfire liabilities, has been repeatedly castigated and admonished by a judge overseeing an effort to improve the company’s safety culture and remove vegetation near its electrical lines.

The deliberate power cuts have been described by PG&E as a way to lower the risk of fire while the company proceeds with its vegetation-trimming program. But by no means does it remove the risk of fires entirely.

Climate change, years of drought and the construction of houses and communities in wild land areas have all contributed to the spate of intense and deadly fires in California in recent years. In addition to electrical equipment, the direct causes of the fires have included lawn mowers, campfires, arson and, in one case, a man trying to plug a wasp’s nest with a metal spike.

Wildfires that ignite in extreme wind conditions can be very difficult to bring under control, firefighters say. The deadliest fires of the past two years — the one that razed Paradise last year and the wine country fires of 2017 — both occurred in similar conditions to the ones that meteorologists are forecasting this week.

Thomas Fuller is the San Francisco bureau chief. He has spent the past two decades in postings abroad for The Times and the International Herald Tribune in Europe and, most recently, in Southeast Asia. @thomasfullerNYT Facebook

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