In what could be the biggest implementation yet of California’s strategy of shutting off power to prevent wildfires, the state’s largest utility announced Monday that blackouts were possible later this week in a large swath of the Bay Area and Northern California.
Citing the potential for extremely dry air and steady winds of up to 30 mph, with gusts that experts said could be twice as strong, Pacific Gas & Electric announced it was considering a public safety power shut-off for 29 counties between Wednesday morning and Thursday afternoon.
On Tuesday, Southern California Edison announced it too was considering preventive power outages. The utility said, in advance of possibly strong Santa Ana winds, power could be cut off to more than 106,000 customers in parts of eight Southern California counties.
Several years of devastating wildfires sparked by downed power lines have prompted utilities to shut down power during hot, dry and windy conditions, a policy that has caused controversy.
The possible mass power cut in Northern California comes at the second anniversary of the wine country firestorms, which killed dozens and destroyed thousands of homes.
Fire officials and forecasters say conditions later this week are cause for concern.
“One thing we do have going this year — similar to 2017 — a lot of fine fuels that have dried up and cured,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Scott Rowe. “What you really need is dry conditions, dry fuel and strong winds to promote fire growth.”
On Oct. 8, 2017, Northern California’s Diablo winds blasted ferociously over the region’s wine country hills, knocking power lines and tree branches into each other, which created showers of molten hot material that ignited the dry brush beneath them.
Those small fires quickly raged out of control under the cover of darkness and overtook the communities of Santa Rosa and Coffey Park, among others. Tens of thousands of homes were lost in the region, and more than 40 people died.
The utility has declared bankruptcy, and the financial liabilities have grown into the dozens of billions.
This week’s Northern California power outage could include the following counties: Alameda, Alpine, Amador, Butte, Calaveras, Colusa, Contra Costa, El Dorado, Glenn, Lake, Mariposa, Mendocino, Napa, Nevada, Placer, Plumas, San Joaquin, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Shasta, Sierra, Solano, Sonoma, Stanislaus, Tehama, Tuolumne, Yolo and Yuba.
An estimate on how many customers could be affected was not immediately available. PG&E officials said the shutdown could be adjusted Tuesday as the forecast for the rest of the week came into better focus. It’s a bit cooler this year than it was in 2017, but otherwise the conditions are similar, Rowe said.
In Southern California, a possible outage could primarily affect utility customers in Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside counties. Also under consideration are areas in Ventura County and portions of Kern, Tulare, Inyo and Mono counties.
The strategy of the shutdowns is one of several ways California is responding to increasingly deadly natural disasters.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has boosted its efforts to burn and cut wildlands it deems a fire risk to residents. At the same time, the state Office of Emergency Services has called for all counties to standardize their emergency alerting and evacuation procedures to streamline communications and response times.
Southern California Edison began preventive power shut-offs in 2017. The state’s other big utility, San Diego Gas & Electric, began such shut-offs in 2013.
The power shut-offs have generated debate, with some residents saying they create a whole new set of dangers as they try to watch for news about fires. There has been heightened concern about those with health issues who rely on medical equipment to stay alive.
Some state and local officials also have complained that utilities don’t always give enough notice before turning off the power. And they have expressed concerns about communications and evacuations if the power is out, especially if traffic signals don’t work and cellphone service is affected.
Once the fire weather subsides, PG&E employees will check the grid in person and electronically before determining it is safe to turn back on, a company official said.
It took the utility less than a day to restore power to customers during a three-county shut-off it performed last weekend and during another in September, the company said in a statement.