California utilities may cut power to thousands amid fire danger

PG&E previously warned of possible shut-offs affecting an estimated 124,000 customers.

    PG&E crew work on power lines to repair damage caused by the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, US November 21, 2018. [File Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters]
    PG&E crew work on power lines to repair damage caused by the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, US November 21, 2018. [File Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters]

    California's two largest utilities were considering cutting power Monday to tens of thousands of customers as fall brings back dangerous weather conditions. The companies are trying to head off wildfires sparked by electrical equipment.

    Pacific Gas & Electric Corp. was expected to decide by Monday evening whether controlled power outages would be needed to ease the risk of wildfires in Northern California. Such electricity disruptions would affect as many as 21,000 customers.

    Meanwhile, Southern California Edison said it might shut off power to 41,000 customers due to forecasts that call for gusty Santa Ana winds. The utility initially estimated that about 10,000 customers could be impacted.

    Major increases were focused on San Bernardino and Riverside counties. Power cuts could also occur in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara counties.

    Pacific Gas & Electric power lines started some of the most destructive blazes in the state during the past two years.

    If approved by San Francisco-based PG&E, outages could occur later in the day and affect portions of Butte, Nevada, and Yuba counties in the Sierra foothills. The utility previously warned of possible shut-offs affecting an estimated 124,000 customers.

    Strong winds, low humidity, and warm temperatures were forecast in the region through Wednesday, and authorities issued an extreme fire danger warning for some areas.

    Wind gusts could reach 80 kph (50 kph) in the northern Sierra and foothills, and between 48 to 64 kph (30 to 40 mph) in the Sacramento Valley and near the Pacific coast, said Eric Curth, a forecaster with the National Weather Service.

    "Humidity levels are dropping, and winds are picking up," Curth said. "The main threat is overnight when the winds pick up in the mountains and foothills."

    PG&E first cut off power preemptively last October, affecting some 87,000 customers. The move prompted complaints and demands for reimbursement.

    But the utility cancelled plans to shut off power before a blaze that killed 86 people and nearly destroyed the town of Paradise.

    An investigation by Cal Fire said transmission lines owned and operated by the utility started the November 8 fire that wiped out nearly 15,000 homes.

    The investigation identified a second nearby ignition site involving PG&E's electrical distribution lines that had contacted vegetation. The second fire was quickly consumed by the initial fire.

    California regulators in May approved allowing utilities to cut off electricity to avoid catastrophic wildfires but said utilities must do a better job ramping up preventive efforts and educating and notifying the public, particularly people with disabilities and others who are vulnerable.

     In January, PG&E sought bankruptcy protection, saying it could not afford an estimated $30bn in potential damages from lawsuits stemming from catastrophic wildfires.

    Earlier this month, PG&E agreed to pay $11bn to insurance companies holding 85 percent of the claims from fires that include the November 2018 Paradise blaze.

    The settlement, confirmed Monday, is subject to bankruptcy court approval.

    It's important for PG&E to pull itself from bankruptcy protection because it will be a big part of a wildfire fund set up to help California's major utilities pay future claims as climate change makes wildfires more frequent and severe.

    SOURCE: AP news agency