SAN FRANCISCO (BLOOMBERG) - More than half a million Californians are once again facing the prospect of a deliberate, widespread blackout as utility giant PG&E Corp tries to keep its power lines from igniting catastrophic wildfires.
PG&E is considering cutting power to 184,000 customers in 17 counties as hot, dry winds sweep in from the north-east. National Weather Service warnings of critical wildfire conditions blanketed the San Francisco Bay area on Tuesday (Oct 22), but PG&E customers will have to wait until Wednesday morning to find out whether they will lose power that afternoon. Edison International's Southern California utility said it is considering a similar shutoff that may affect 162,276 homes and businesses.
The threat of widespread shut-offs is hitting just two weeks after PG&E carried out the biggest planned blackout in California history, plunging about two million people into darkness, knocking out traffic lights and forcing businesses to shut across the Bay Area. Southern California Edison also cut power to customers, though on a much smaller scale.
"This does appear to be a total, California-wide wind event," PG&E meteorologist Scott Strenfel told reporters late on Tuesday.
PG&E chief executive Bill Johnson warned that yet another strong wind storm may hit the state as early as this weekend and into next week, cautioning that the potential size of that storm is still being studied. "I don't want us to get too far ahead thinking about Saturday and Sunday when we've got tomorrow to think about," he said.
Johnson has said customers should be prepared to go dark for as long as 48 hours. Some parts of the state may see gusts as strong as 72kmh late in the week, the weather service reported.
The PG&E blackout that struck earlier this month drew outrage from customers and state officials who accused the utility of cutting service to more customers than necessary and failing to properly communicate its plans.
PG&E will be looking at forecasts up to the "very minute" to try to limit the scope of this week's blackout, PG&E's senior director of emergency preparedness, Mark Quinlan, said on Tuesday. "If there are opportunities to sectionalise and limit the impact to customers, that's what we're going to do."
Spencer Tangen, a weather service meteorologist in Monterey, California, said the agency is expecting dry, offshore winds to ramp up on Wednesday, peaking Wednesday night and continuing into Thursday morning. "It's bone dry, because there is really hardly any moisture in the air with these winds," he said.
Southern California Edison said tens of thousands of customers could lose power in counties including Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside. At least two major blazes have already broken out in that region in recent days, including the Saddle Ridge Fire that burned about 3,561 ha and one that erupted near the affluent Pacific Palisades coastal enclave, forcing an evacuation of several streets.
"We're just determined to not let that happen here," Johnson said of blazes that have broken out in Southern California.
Rest of Week Low humidity will cover California this week, according to the National Weather Service, with temperatures expected to hit between 90 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 deg C). "The general pattern persists for most of the week, so they could be under the gun for potential fire issues going forward," said Bob Oravec, a senior branch forecaster at the US Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland.
PG&E, the state's biggest utility owner, was forced into bankruptcy after its equipment was identified as the cause of devastating blazes that included the Camp Fire in November 2018 that killed 86 people and destroyed an entire town. The company has been taking more extreme measures since those fires to keep its equipment from sparking more blazes.
If PG&E decides to cut power, shutoffs would begin at 2pm local time on Wednesday (11pm Singapore time), starting with customers in the Sierra foothills and spreading outward.