More than half a million people woke up without power Thursday as California faces hot weather, strong winds and fast-moving wildfires that have erupted across the state.
Southern California Edison has shut off power to more than 24,000 customers in five counties — Kern, Riverside, Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Ventura — as the state braces for a day of strong winds. The utility is monitoring 286,000 more customers in those areas and Orange County for possible shut-offs as the day progresses.
About 179,000 Pacific Gas & Electric Co. customers in 17 counties across the state have also lost power. The state’s largest utility began cutting electric service on Wednesday afternoon to customers in the Sierra Nevada foothills and counties in the north San Francisco Bay Area. Shortly after 1 a.m. Thursday, portions of San Mateo and Kern counties were also in the dark.
San Diego Gas & Electric Co. has also cut power to more than 3,900 customers as of early Thursday and more than 37,000 are under shut-off consideration because of high winds.
The number of residents estimated to be affected by the shutoffs — more than 605,000 — is calculated using the average number of people per household based on U.S. Census data.
The utilities made the decision to cut power based on forecasts of hot, dry weather and strong winds that pose a high risk for damage to their electric systems, which officials fear could ignite a wildfire.
Forecasts of strong winds, temperatures in the 90-degree range and low humidity prompted the National Weather Service to issue red flag warnings through 5 p.m. Friday for much of Southern California and through 4 p.m. Thursday in large swaths of Northern California.
“A combination of strong winds, low relative humidity and warm temperatures can contribute to extreme fire behavior,” the weather service wrote. “Use extreme caution with potential fire ignition sources.”
In Northern California, there’s potentially worse news ahead.
The National Weather Service in Sacramento is forecasting another wind event starting late Saturday that could be the strongest so far this fall.
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“Downed trees, power outages & difficult driving conditions are possible,” the weather service said Wednesday in a tweet.
On Wednesday night, PG&E officials told reporters at a news conference that they were anticipating another “public safety power shut-off” this weekend if that forecast comes to fruition.
“Our plan, given the projected all-clear, is that we will have everybody restored who could be affected by the second one before it happens, so our plan is to hook everybody back up and then at some point see what those forecasts actually lead to, but we intend to restore everybody,” said Bill Johnson, chief executive of PG&E.
PG&E anticipates that “all clear” moment will be noon Thursday. The utility has said it could take up to 48 hours to restore power to all customers.
Power shut-offs by the utility companies have prompted backlash from customers, with some residents saying the outages create a whole new set of dangers as they try to watch for news about fires that have broken out across the state, including the massive Kincade fire in Sonoma County and the smaller but fast-moving Old Water fire in San Bernardino.
Both fires have forced residents to evacuate.
Critics also worry that communications and evacuations will be hampered if the power is out, especially if traffic signals don’t work and cellphone service is affected.
Equipment malfunctions have been tied to some of the state’s most destructive and deadly fires, including last year’s Camp fire, which devastated the town of Paradise in Northern California and killed 85 people, and the 2017 wine country blazes.
Investigators determined last year that Edison power lines ignited the 2017 Thomas fire, a massive blaze in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties that killed two people. Officials are still trying to determine whether power lines sparked the Woolsey fire, which ripped through Ventura County and Malibu in November 2018.
Southern California Edison has also faced scrutiny over possible links between the company’s electrical system and the start of the Saddleridge fire, which scorched nearly 8,800 acres in the hills of the northern San Fernando Valley this month and destroyed several homes.