Northern California’s biggest utility has taken the unprecedented step of cutting electricity for tens of thousands of customers in an attempt to prevent wildfires amid rising winds and official warnings on Monday of extreme fire danger.
Pacific Gas & Electric began turning off the lights in California’s wine country north of San Francisco and Sierra Nevada foothills east of Sacramento Sunday night. The utility said at least 87,000 customers had their power turned off and that more could be put in the dark, depending on the weather.
Schools in those areas canceled Monday classes and PG&E said it expected to restore power Monday night to most affected customers — though some residents won’t get their electricity back until Tuesday.
“We know how much our customers rely on electric service, and we have made the decision to turn off power as a last resort given the extreme fire danger conditions these communities are experiencing,” PG&E spokesman Pat Hogan said.
PG&E earlier announced its plan to shut power preemptively after authorities blamed its power lines for sparking some of California’s most destructive wildfires.
The utility faces payments of billions of dollars in damages and has sought to limit its wildfire liability in the courts and the state Legislature.
The National Weather Service warned of extreme fire danger throughout the state. Utilities in Southern California also said Monday that they were considering shutting off their customers’ power, though those utilities said they didn’t know how many people could be affected.
The weather service predicted winds gusting to 55 mph in the Sierra foothills about 50 miles east of Sacramento. High winds were also expected in the state’s wine country about 50 miles north of San Francisco. Forecasters warned that the high winds and low humidity created ideal conditions for wildfires to sweep over parched areas with drought-dried vegetation that serves as tinder for wildfires.
Strong wind gusts also swept many areas of Southern California early Monday with the arrival of the first fall Santa Ana winds, which are hot, sustained winds that blow out of the state’s desert-like region in the east to the ocean.
Southern California Edison spokesman David Song said about 32,000 of its 5 million customers were experiencing early morning power outages, but no public safety power shutdowns by the utility had been put into effect. Song said the utility is investigating the cause of the outages but that high winds were a possibility.
Decisions on whether to intentionally cut power involve consideration of factors including wind speeds and gusts, humidity and vegetation.
The latter factor was aided by weekend rains, Song said.