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Windy week in Northern California could bring another wave of power shutoffs

Power lines are cast in silhouette
Pacific Gas & Electric Co. announced a potential public safety power shutoff in targeted portions of 19 counties in Northern California beginning Wednesday evening.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Back-to-back waves of wind and record-breaking temperatures are sweeping across Northern California, which could prompt Pacific Gas & Electric Co. to implement another round of power shutoffs, the utility announced Monday.

The power cuts, if needed, could begin Wednesday evening and affect roughly 50,000 people in parts of 19 counties: Alameda, Butte, Colusa, Contra Costa, Glenn, Humboldt, Lake, Lassen, Napa, Plumas, Santa Clara, Shasta, Solano, Sonoma, Stanislaus, Tehama, Trinity, Yolo and Yuba. The tribal communities of Cortina Rancheria and Grindstone Rancheria could also lose power.

People who rely on power for their electric medical equipment will be notified of the potential shutoffs, according to the company.

The region is bracing for three successive periods of high wind lasting into early next week, said National Weather Service meteorologist Drew Peterson. A red flag warning for high fire danger has already been issued.

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The first, and likely weakest, weather event began Monday night with sustained winds of 10-20 mph and gusts reaching 35 mph. Winds are expected to intensify around Redding and Chico, but a swath of Northern California — from Eureka to Modesto, and from the coast to South Lake Tahoe — will also be affected. The red flag warning is in effect until Wednesday morning.

After a brief reprieve during the day, another fire weather watch will begin at 10 p.m. Wednesday and last until 5 p.m. Friday, the weather service said. Critical conditions are expected to take hold Wednesday night into Thursday, covering the northern Sacramento Valley, the northern Sierra Nevada and North Bay mountains and Mount Diablo in the East Bay, according to PG&E.

“Windy conditions, like those being forecast, increase the potential for damage and hazards to the electric infrastructure, which could cause sparks if lines are energized,“ said the PG&E statement Monday. “These conditions also increase the potential for rapid fire spread.”

A third weather event is expected to begin Saturday and last into early next week, Peterson said, but is too far in the future to predict exact conditions. Meteorologist Hannah Chandler-Cooley said this week’s weather comes from winds driven from the northeast and intense surface pressure.

“When you have those two things combined … that’s when you start getting these offshore winds,” she said.

In addition to the gusty winds, relative humidity will hover at a low 12% to 20%, the weather service said, with little recovery overnight. Temperatures could reach into the 80s and 90s Tuesday and Wednesday before cooling off slightly over the weekend.

During the power cuts, rural residents in Lake County struggled with basic necessities, such as powering medical devices and keeping food fresh. There were few services to help them.

“The overarching concern over the next seven days is we do have record dry fuels in place over all these fire-prone locations, so it’s essentially a tinderbox that’s ready to go up in flame,” Peterson said. “Even without the fire weather conditions, the fire fuel — like the trees and grass and everything — are just primed to ignite. It will take very little to get those to combust and start burning. We’re dealing with a very potentially dangerous condition.”

There are 27 wildfires still burning in California, according to The Times’ tracker. The largest is the August Complex fire, which has burned 1,032,264 acres so far. It started on Aug. 16 and is 91% contained.

The weather service’s Sacramento office warned residents in the area to avoid using equipment that emits sparks or driving and parking over dry brush.

The anticipated weather event and power shutoffs mirror last week’s situation, when a red flag warning prompted PG&E to turn off power for 53,000 customers in 24 counties.

The company is taking the precautions , to prevent a power line or transformer from sparking another blaze. The company pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter over the ignition of the 2018 Camp fire in Northern California.

PG&E equipment is also being scrutinized as a possible cause of the Zogg fire, which started Sept. 27 near Redding and killed four people while burning 56,338 acres.


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