Wildfire risk in California prompts PG&E power cuts to 361,000 customers

Red flag warnings have triggered the shutoffs in parts of 36 counties

Hundreds of thousands of customers are without power in northern and central California Monday after the nation's largest utility conducted its largest shutoff of the year to prevent wildfires.

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Pacific Gas & Electric Corp. (PG&E) said it began the process of shutting off power to 225,000 customers in Northern California on Monday, followed by another 136,000 customers in the central part of the state.

“This event is by far the largest we've experienced this year, the most extreme weather,” said Aaron Johnson, the utility's vice president of wildfire safety and public engagement. “We're trying to find ways to make the events less difficult.”

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This latest "public safety power shutoff," or PSPS, is the fifth wildfire safety outage this year by the company and the largest.

A PG&E lineman works on repairing electrical wires that were touching due to high winds on Manzanita Court in Concord, Calif., on Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group via AP)

PG&E said this shutoff impacts targeted portions of 36 counties, including Alameda, Alpine, Amador, Butte, Calaveras, Colusa, Contra Costa, El Dorado, Fresno, Glenn, Humboldt, Kern, Lake, Madera, Marin, Mariposa, Mendocino, Napa, Nevada, Placer, Plumas, San Joaquin, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Shasta, Sierra, Siskiyou, Solano, Sonoma, Stanislaus, Tehama, Trinity, Tuolumne, Yolo and Yuba.

Debris flies through the air as a PG&E lineman works on repairing electrical wires that were touching due to high winds on Manzanita Court in Concord, Calif., on Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group via AP)

Customers in 17 tribal communities are also impacted by power cuts.

The shutoffs come as the state faces what could be the strongest wind event of the year. The National Weather Service (NWS) issued red flag warnings for much of the state, with winds gusting up to 35 mph in lower elevations and worse farther up.

PG&E said while the worst of the weather may subside by Monday morning, the winds will stick around through Tuesday for some of its customers.

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Once conditions improve, PG&E crews will patrol de-energized lines to ensure they did not sustain damage from the wind. Once it's safe to do so, the utility said it will safety restore power in stages with a goal to restore power to nearly all customers within 12 daylight hours after the severe weather passed.

A roadside sign warns motorists of extreme fire danger on Grizzly Peak Boulevard, in Oakland, Calif., Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group via AP)

PG&E officials said the planned outages are a safety measure and understood they burden residents, especially with many working from home and their children taking classes online because of the coronavirus pandemic.

A PG&E lineman works on repairing electrical wires that were touching due to high winds on Manzanita Court in Concord, Calif., on Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group via AP)

Sheriff Kory Honea of Butte County told the Associated Press he’s concerned about residents in foothill communities during the blackouts because cellular service can be spotty and it’s the only way many can stay informed when the power is out.

A PG&E lineman works on repairing electrical wires that were touching due to high winds on Manzanita Court in Concord, Calif., on Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group via AP)

“It is quite a strain on them to have to go through these over and over and over again,” he said.

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Residents in some vulnerable neighborhoods like the hills over Berkeley said they were packing their cars in case they had to evacuate the area if any fires break out. City officials had given a pre-evacuation order in advance of the dangerous fire conditions.

A vehicle drives up Mountain Boulevard in the Montclair neighborhood after the power has been shut off due to high winds in Oakland, Calif., Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group via AP)/Bay Area News Group via AP)

”I’m going to pack my car, my wife’s going to pack her car. So if we have to leave we are gone,” Frank Tapia told KTVU. “If a fire were to happen it would be pretty scary around here.”

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Weather conditions in Southern California may also lead to outages in that part of the state. Utility Southern California Edison said it was considering safety outages for 71,000 customers in six counties starting Monday, with San Bernardino County potentially the most affected.

TickerSecurityLastChangeChange %
PCGPG & E CORP.12.73+0.09+0.71%
EIXEDISON INTL62.79-0.92-1.44%

Traditionally October and November are the worst months for fires in California, but already this year the state has seen more than 8,600 wildfires that have scorched a record 6,400 square miles and destroyed about 9,200 homes, businesses and other structures. So far, there have been 31 deaths statewide.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.