Already by Friday afternoon, Southern California Edison power lines were being blamed for sparking a small brush fire in Santa Clarita.
The blaze broke out shortly after noon along the southbound 5 Freeway at Calgrove Boulevard when downed wires ignited dry brush, said Marvin Lim, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Fire Department.
Residents extinguished the flames before firefighters arrived, he said.
Edison spokesman David Eisenhauer said the utility is cooperating with investigators to determine the cause of the fire.
“Determining the cause is a lengthy process,” he said.
The incident underscored the issues weighing on the utility as it considers whether to shut off power to more than 56,000 customers over the weekend amid warnings from forecasters that strong winds would raise the risk of wildfires.
Edison has already warned customers spread over eight counties that their electricity could be turned off in the coming days.
The largest concentration of customers who could be affected — over 24,000 — is in Santa Barbara County. The National Weather Service issued a red-flag warning for the county’s South Coast and mountain regions that remains in effect through Sunday night.
There, so-called sundowner winds were expected to combine with low humidity and dry brush to increase the threat of wildfires. Gusts could reach 70 mph in the hills above Montecito on Saturday night and continue into Sunday morning, according to the weather service. The notorious winds, which are similar to Santa Anas in the south, have fueled a number of devastating fires in the area, including the massive Thomas fire that burned more than 281,000 acres in 2017.
Potentially damaging winds were also forecast for the Los Angeles County mountains, the Santa Clarita Valley and the Santa Monica Mountains, bringing brief periods of critical fire weather. The strongest winds were expected to hit overnight Saturday into Sunday.
“We are watching the situation closely, and there is the possibility that we may need to wind up issuing a red-flag warning for that area,” Joe Sirard, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard, said Friday afternoon. “But right now, it looks like the humidity will stay high enough that we can hold off on the red-flag warning for now.”
He said forecasters were using computer models to keep an eye on the situation.
Edison was also considering shutoffs to several thousand customers each in Kern, Los Angeles, Mono, Orange, San Bernardino and Ventura counties, as well as several hundred in Inyo County.
The utility was using data from its weather stations and cameras to weigh a number of factors, including wind speed, humidity and dryness of vegetation, Eisenhauer said Friday.
“All that information is analyzed by our fire scientists and weather forecasters, then they combine that with on-the-ground field observations,” Eisenhauer said. “Because we have crews out there patrolling constantly, they can see things like if a palm frond has blown into a power line.”
Preemptive power shutdowns have become a hotly debated topic as the state nears the peak of wildfire season.
Utilities hope that by powering down electrical infrastructure in certain areas under certain conditions, they can reduce the risk of winds snapping a line or piece of equipment and sparking a fire.
But utilities like Edison, as well as Pacific Gas & Electric Co., have fielded complaints that such shutdowns are overly broad or not adequately communicated to residents in advance.
Public health officials and advocates have in particular raised concerns about those who depend on electricity to power medical devices or rely on air conditioning.
“We understand these public safety power shutoffs are disruptive to our public and communities, so we don’t take these decisions lightly,” Eisenhauer said Friday. “We do everything we can to minimize the impact of these.”
Utilities have also faced criticism for failing to turn off power to areas that later burned.
Los Angeles arson investigators confirmed this week that the 8,000-acre Saddleridge fire started beneath an Edison high-voltage transmission tower in Sylmar. Edison had not cut electricity to the lines, though it had shut down power to other areas because of weather conditions.