PG&E Plans Power Shutoffs as Hot, Dry Winds Invade Northern California

FILE – In this Sept. 16, 2020 file photo the August Complex Fire burns near Lake Pillsbury in the Mendocino National Forest, Calif. (AP Photo/Noah Berger, File)

(CN) — Tens of thousands of Californians could see their electricity shut off Wednesday evening as a dry storm brings dangerous winds to the north part of the state which has already seen record-breaking wildfires this year.

The San Francisco-based Pacific Gas and Electric said in a statement it would cut power to approximately 54,000 of its customers through Friday due to a “strong and dry offshore wind event” affecting residents in 24 northern counties and two tribal communities.

Gusty winds fuel intense wildfires but also often knock down trees and branches that can collapse onto power lines and start more blazes. Utility companies have used planned power blackouts in the past to avoid having their downed electricity lines sparking fires.

Planned power shutoffs have been utilized twice by PG&E already this wildfire season. The company faced scrutiny during last year’s wildfire season when thousands of Californians went without power for days.

The region could see wind gusts of up to 45 miles per hour in some areas and as high as 55 miles per hour at higher elevations and in some canyons through Friday, according to the National Weather Service.

The communities PG&E says may be affected by Wednesday’s storm include mountainous, forested areas surrounding the San Francisco Bay region, the northern Sierra Nevada foothills, areas around the Calaveras Reservoir, and sections of the Santa Cruz and Big Sur mountains.

Counties receiving power shutoff alerts include Alameda, Amador, Butte, Calaveras, Contra Costa, El Dorado, Humboldt, Lake, Monterey, Napa, Nevada, Placer, Plumas, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Shasta, Sierra, Solano, Sonoma, Tehama, Trinity, Yolo and Yuba.

The utility began sending alerts to customers Monday, two days before the storm was forecast to begin, and said it is monitoring weather conditions and stands ready to adjust blackout plans if conditions change.  

Customers who depend on electricity for critical life-sustaining equipment should register with the PG&E’s Medical Baseline Program, officials said, adding that nearly 3,140 program participants would be impacted by shutoffs.

Affected residents can access bottled water, snacks, Wi-Fi and charging stations at one of over 35 PG&E resource centers. The drop-in centers will follow strict public health guidelines to limit potential spread of Covid-19. 

PG&E claims shutoffs would only impact 1% of its service range in a region that has experienced thousands of wildfires this year — many sparked by dry lightning strikes — including the largest fire in state history, the over 1 million-acre August Complex fire.

More than 8,400 wildfires have scorched over 4.1 million acres across the Golden State during this historic wildfire season, according to Cal Fire data.

Over 11,000 firefighters continue to battle 13 major and 7 large wildfires across the state, the agency said Wednesday. 

The August Complex fire was listed at 76% containment Wednesday, an indication firefighters have clamped down on fire spread.

The Creek Fire burning near Fresno has burned over 337,000 acres but firefighters there have managed to contain 55% of the blaze, according to Cal Fire. The fire has destroyed 856 structures and 22 firefighters and residents have been injured.

The Glass Fire burning in Napa and Solana counties is at over 67,000 acres — up from 60,000 last week — but is now 97% contained, up from 30% containment Oct. 5.

The statewide fire response agency issued a red flag warning Wednesday for Northern California, placing additional firefighters and fire engines on high alert.

“A red flag warning is the highest alert,” the Cal Fire website said. “During these times extreme caution is urged by all residents, because a simple spark can cause a major wildfire.”

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