As dry, gusty winds bear down on Northern California on Tuesday as a record-breaking heat wave continues, the state's largest utility has imposed blackouts for tens of thousands to try to prevent its power lines and equipment from sparking new wildfires.
Pacific Gas and Electric Compay (PG&E) said Monday night that it started the process of de-energizing numerous electrical lines in 22 counties as part of a Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) due to forecasted severe weather conditions.
"This PSPS event is based on forecasts of widespread, severely dry conditions and strong, gusty winds that create critical fire weather with high ignition risk," the company said in a news release.
In all, 172,000 customers in portions of 22 counties and seven tribal communities are impacted by the power shutoffs.
The counties impacted are Alpine, Amador, Butte, Calaveras, El Dorado, Humboldt, Kern, Lake, Lassen, Mariposa, Napa, Nevada, Placer, Plumas, Shasta, Sierra, Siskiyou, Sonoma, Tehama, Trinity, Tuolumne and Yuba.
Strong winds are expected to continue through at least Wednesday morning, which could leave customers in the dark until they subside.
Mark Quinlan, PG&E’s incident commander, told the Sacramento Bee the duration of the outages “are really driven by the length of the wind period" but the shutoffs were needed to reduce fire dangers.
“We don’t take that decision lightly,” he told the paper.
Pacific Gas & Electric power lines ignited the deadliest wildfire in state history — the Camp Fire that swept through the community of Paradise and killed 85 people.
Liability from billions of dollars in claims from that and other fires forced the utility to seek bankruptcy protection. To guard against new wildfires and new liability, PG&E last year began preemptive power shutoffs when conditions are exceptionally dangerous.
PG&E received criticism for its handling of planned outages last year that covered millions of customers.
The utility said it has learned from past problems, “and this year will be making events smaller in size, shorter in length and smarter for customers.”
While the National Weather Service (NWS) has placed 1.5 million customers under a red flag warning for fire conditions, PG&E notes that the de-energization this week impacts less than 12% of them.
"PG&E will be able to use temporary generation and islanding to enable about 69,000 customers and several medical facilities to stay energized," the company said.
California has seen 900 wildfires since Aug. 15, many of them started by an intense series of thousands of lightning strikes in mid-August. There have been eight fire deaths and more than 3,300 structures destroyed.
More than 14,000 firefighters are fighting about two dozen blazes around the state.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.