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PG&E lowers numbers in preparation for largest California wildfire blackout of 2020

Sacramento Bee logo Sacramento Bee 10/25/2020 Dale Kasler, The Sacramento Bee

PG&E, facing the most dangerous windstorm of 2020, expects to shut off power to an estimated 394,000 homes and businesses as severe “red flag” warnings go into effect and wildfire risks intensify.

Roughly 60,000 customers around the Sacramento region could be plunged into darkness as early as Sunday morning.

The “public safety power shutoff,” announced late Friday, would be the largest of the year, conjuring up memories of the series of massive blackouts Pacific Gas and Electric Co. imposed last October. On Saturday, company officials revised the number down by 72,000 customers from the original estimate of 466,000.

The latest blackout is expected to start Sunday morning and last through Tuesday, affecting parts of 38 counties across PG&E’s vast territory, with much of the shutoff occurring in the Sierra foothills and the Bay Area.

It will be the fifth wildfire safety outage this year by PG&E — including one that wasn’t scheduled to end until late Friday.

In its revision, PG&E scaled the blackout down by 15 percent as it said forecasts showed a decrease in the likelihood of high winds in places like Santa Rosa, which has seen some of the worst fires in the state for three years. The number of customers affected there, for example, was less than 2,000 after it was originally set to 15,000 homes and businesses.

Residents around the Sacramento region, including about 38,000 in El Dorado County, 17,000 in Placer County, 5,100 in Yuba County and 165 in Yolo County, where among those who faced interruption. Nevada County was preparing for the largest outage, with about 40,500 customers potentially facing the shutoff.

Customers in Sacramento County and Roseville, which are served by other utilities such as SMUD, are not part of the planned outage.

“We’re seeing four extremes in the weather for this potential PSPS event: extremely high winds, extremely low humidity, extreme dry fuels due to the hottest average temperatures over the last six months according to records that go back 126 years, and extreme drought across the territory given lack of rainfall,” said PG&E’s Scott Strenfel, head of meteorology and fire science, in a prepared statement.

“While temperatures are expected to drop heading into this event with cold weather expected in some areas, the high winds, low humidity, dry fuels and lack of rainfall continues to result in high fire hazard conditions.”

The National Weather Service issued a red flag warning for practically all of Northern California and said wind gusts could top 70 mph.

Wildfire damages drove PG&E into bankruptcy in early 2019, following the wine country fires of 2017 and the 2018 Camp Fire, the deadliest in California history. The utility exited bankruptcy this summer but faces enormous pressure to avoid causing more wildfires.

Last fall it was blamed for the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County, which was ignited by a transmission line that remained active even while that area was under a public safety blackout. The company has told investors that liabilities from Kincade could reach $600 million.

This year, the company is under investigation in connection with the Zogg Fire, which killed four people in Shasta County last month.

The utility company was still in the process of restoring power to thousands of customers Friday afternoon, after shutting it off for 31,000 homes and businesses across seven Northern California counties Wednesday. PG&E said should have “essentially all” affected customers back in service by 10 p.m. Friday.

The NWS is also warning that winds will be strong enough to down trees, branches and power lines, meaning residents should be prepared for unplanned outages as well.

Climate change and California wildfires

California is already amid a devastating, record-setting wildfire season in which at least 31 people have died and well over 4 million acres have burned, according to Cal Fire.

Dozens of major fires and hundreds of smaller ones sparked in a freak mid-August thunderstorm that dropped lightning strikes across the north half of the state. In the fire-prone and vulnerable North Bay, the LNU Lightning Complex killed six people and burned 363,000 acres before containment, now standing as the fourth-biggest fire in California’s recorded history. In the East Bay, the SCU Lightning Complex charred 396,000 acres, making it the state’s third-biggest blaze ever.

In early September, a zone of the North Complex burning in Plumas County flared wildly due to severe winds, killing 15 people as it pushed west into communities north of Lake Oroville.

Near the end of September, the Zogg Fire killed four after igniting in Shasta County, west of Redding. And the Glass Fire, back in the North Bay counties of Napa and Sonoma, destroyed more than 1,500 structures, including nearly 650 homes.

Northern California has already had numerous red flag warnings this month, including two earlier this week. Neither of those resulted in any major new starts or significant flare-ups of existing fires.

Wind alone cannot directly cause a fire to spark, but it can lead one that’s ignited to grow out-of-control rapidly. Gusty weather can also knock down power equipment, an area of recent concern in California.

Wildfires have always been part of life in California. The past four years have brought some of the most destructive and deadliest wildfires in the state’s modern history.

Nearly 180 people have lost their lives since 2017. More than 41,000 structures have been destroyed and nearly 7 million acres have burned. That’s roughly the size of Massachusetts.

Meanwhile, this year’s August was the hottest on record in California. A rare series of lightning storms sparked a series of fires, including the August Complex that has burned nearly 1 million acres, making it by far the largest wildfire in California’s recorded history.

The 2017 wildfire season occurred during the second-hottest year on record in California and included a devastating string of fires in October that killed 44 people and destroyed nearly 9,000 buildings in Napa, Lake, Sonoma, Mendocino, Butte and Solano counties.

The following year was the most destructive and deadliest for wildfires in the state’s history. It included the Camp Fire, which destroyed the town of Paradise and killed 85 people, and the enormous Mendocino Complex.

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©2020 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)

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