As winds died down across the region Sunday afternoon, Southern California Edison managed to avoid cutting off power to parts of Malibu as a precautionary measure aimed at preventing more wildfires, an official said.
The company was considering shutting down some circuits in the coastal city as strong Santa Ana winds battered the region early Sunday, said Paul Griffo, an Edison spokesman. There were other areas where the utility was considering turning off power, but Griffo declined to name them.
Santa Ana winds reached up to 65 mph earlier in the day in the Malibu Hills and about 60 mph in the Newhall Pass, according to the National Weather Service. But by mid-afternoon winds across the region had died down significantly.
Electrical utilities are a leading cause of wildfires across the state. State regulators have levied tens of millions of dollars in fines against power companies for sparking past blazes, and the deadly Northern California fires have been linked to exploding transformers and sparking electrical wires that were reported at the start of the blazes.
Experts say shutting down the power grid in times of extreme winds is a rarely used but effective tactic to prevent wildfires. Until last week, Southern California Edison hadn't shut down power in response to wind conditions for more than a decade, Griffo said.
But that changed after the fires in California's wine country in October damaged or destroyed more than 14,000 homes and killed more than 40 people. The company shut off electricity Dec. 7 to Idyllwild in the San Jacinto Mountains, Griffo said. And San Diego Gas & Electric Co. took similar action last week in rural San Diego County before fires broke out — but there was some criticism of the move because firefighters couldn't operate electric water pumps.
Red flag warnings remain in effect until 8 p.m. for Los Angeles and Ventura Counties, according to the National Weather Service, which also reported that the Santa Ana winds will "likely cause downed trees and powerlines." Strong winds have been fueling the massive Thomas fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties that has scorched 269,000 acres and is now the third-largest wildfire in California history.
In west L.A. County, Edison reported that more than 2,000 customers has lost power Sunday morning, an official said. The cause has yet to be determined.
On Sunday morning, wind gusts topped 70 mph in some mountain areas and 50 mph along the coast, said Kathy Hoxsie, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard. Malibu Hills recorded a 64-mph peak wind on Sunday morning, she said.
Winds are expected to calm down Monday and Tuesday to 10 to 20 mph, which will "look tranquil" compared with the weekend gusts, Hoxsie said. Increased humidity levels and low winds are expected to help firefighters focus on defense work such as bulldozing fire lines and dropping fire retardant.
But it will be a short respite, as strong winds and low humidity are expected to return Wednesday in Santa Barbara County and Thursday in Ventura County, Hoxsie said.
3:30 p.m.: This article was updated with new information about power outages.