PG&E Corp. has started cutting power to customers in parts of Northern California in the latest in a series of blackouts designed to keep the utility’s power lines from igniting further wildfires in high-wind conditions.
About 149,000 customers in parts of 18 counties throughout Northern California will eventually be affected, Katie Allen, a company spokeswoman, said by telephone Wednesday. The action comes as the National Weather Service has posted “red flag” warnings for strong gusts across the region from 4 a.m. local time Wednesday to 7 a.m. Thursday.
“The process is underway,” Allen said. The company has scheduled outages throughout Thursday and will adjust if weather conditions change, she said. The high winds should subside by Thursday morning, when the utility expects to begin restoring power, she said.
The blackouts have provoked widespread outrage in California, triggering a state investigation and intensifying calls for a government takeover of the power giant. The company is taking extreme measures to prevent blazes from breaking out after its equipment ignited deadly fires in Northern California in 2017 and 2018. In January, it declared bankruptcy to deal with an estimated $30 billion in wildfire liabilities.
“We all know it’s not sustainable — it’s not where we want to be,” Andy Vesey, PG&E’s chief of utility operations, said of the shutoffs during a press conference late Tuesday. “But at this point in time, it’s the situation that we are faced with.”
While affecting several counties across Northern California, Wednesday’s shutoffs will pale in comparison to the mass blackouts PG&E carried out last month, which plunged millions of people into darkness for days.
The storm isn’t “as intense as the events we saw in October,” Vesey said.
Widespread winds will range from 15 to 30 miles per hour with higher gusts. Red flag warnings posted by the weather service mean the combination of dry air, gusting winds and parched landscape can lead to “extreme fire behavior.”
“Winds are already pretty strong over Northern California,” Patrick Burke, a senior branch forecaster with the U.S. Weather Prediction Center, said by phone early Wednesday. “That means they will probably be strongest during the driest part of the day in a few hours.”
California has had little rain for months, and more than 81% of the state is abnormally dry, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The parched plants and soils, along with high winds, make fall one of the worst times for fires in the state.