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PG&E expands possible shut-offs; 97,000 could see power cut with heat and wind expected to boost fire danger

A Pacific Gas & Electric lineman works on a power line
A Pacific Gas & Electric lineman works to repair a power line in Paradise, Calif., in 2018.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Pacific Gas & Electric may cut power to nearly 97,000 customers in 15 counties this weekend as dry, unseasonably hot conditions and strong winds are expected to greatly increase fire danger across much of Northern California.

Utility officials said that a “public safety power shut-off” could be necessary as “hot and dry conditions, combined with expected high wind gusts, pose an increased risk for damage to the electric system that has the potential to ignite fires in areas with dry vegetation.”

The “potentially strong and dry offshore wind event” is expected to start early Sunday and last through Monday, according to PG&E.

As a result, the utility said outages may become necessary in parts of Alpine, Amador, Butte, Calaveras, El Dorado, Kern, Lake, Napa, Nevada, Placer, Plumas, Shasta, Sierra, Tehama and Yuba counties.

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PG&E previously said potential outages were expected to affect only about 21,000 customers in parts of Butte, Plumas and Yuba counties, but greatly expanded that “based on updated weather forecasts that showed stronger wind gusts in a larger portion” of its service area, according to a statement issued late Friday.

Gusty offshore winds will lead to critical fire danger in parts of Northern California over the weekend. PG&E is watching to see if power shutdowns will be needed.

Red flag warnings are now in effect for much of Northern California from 9 p.m. Saturday through early Monday. The warning covers from just above Redding southeast into the Sierra foothills, parts of the Sacramento Valley, and areas in and around the San Francisco Bay Area, including the North Bay mountains, East Bay hills and interior valleys.

David Sweet, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard, previously said that a large area of high pressure covering almost the entire West Coast is expected to build over the weekend. Temperatures could climb 10 to 20 degrees above normal in some areas.

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Officials said the forecast conditions — which include sustained winds, low humidity and summer-like temperatures — will make it easier for fires to both start and spread.

That’s unwelcome news in an area of the state where crews are still working to contain some of the largest wildfires in California history.

Those include the North Complex fire northeast of Oroville — which has burned more than 304,000 acres and has become one of the deadliest and most destructive in the state’s history. Containment on that blaze is at 78%.

The mammoth August Complex fire has charred a state-record 867,000-plus acres in and around the Mendocino, Shasta-Trinity and Six Rivers national forests, southwest of Redding. That blaze was 38% contained as of Friday morning.

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While many of the blazes comprising this year’s unprecedented fire season are believed to have been sparked by lightning, recent years have seen power equipment ignite some of California’s most devastating blazes — including the 2018 Camp fire that destroyed nearly 14,000 homes and killed 85 people.

PG&E implemented widespread power shut-offs — affecting roughly 172,000 customers in 22 counties — earlier this month on account of severe wind.

Officials said Thursday that the utility later found more than 80 instances of damage or hazards on power lines that were de-energized from Sept. 7 to 10 and that “any of these could have potentially led to a wildfire had the lines not been turned off.”

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“We have worked diligently to improve public safety power shut-offs by integrating enhanced weather technology, boosting our coordination with counties and state agencies and making sure customers get timely and accurate information,” PG&E Interim President Michael Lewis said in a statement.

“Still, we know turning off the power represents a significant hardship for our customers. Please know that we don’t take this decision lightly, and we will only initiate a [power shut-off] as an option of last resort when severe weather that could cause a wildfire makes it absolutely necessary for public safety.”

Times staff writer Maura Dolan contributed to this report.


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