Over half a million Californians face second mass blackout in a month

California is facing the prospect of another deliberate power shutdown as hot dry winds sweep in from the north-east.
California is facing the prospect of another deliberate power shutdown as hot dry winds sweep in from the north-east.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

SAN FRANCISCO • More than half a million Californians may once again face a deliberate, widespread blackout as utility giant PG&E tries to keep its power lines from igniting catastrophic wildfires.

PG&E was 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, but PG&E customers had to wait until yesterday morning to find out whether they would lose power that afternoon.

Edison International's Southern California utility said it was considering a similar shutoff that may affect 162,276 homes and businesses.

The threat of widespread shutoffs comes just two weeks after PG&E carried out the biggest planned blackout in California history, plunging about 2 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 was still being studied. Mr 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 later 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 and limit the scope of the blackout, said its senior director of emergency preparedness Mark Quinlan. "If there are opportunities to sectionalise and limit the impact to customers, that's what we're going to do."

  • 184k

    Number of PG&E customers across 17 counties who might have their power cut.

    2 million

    Number of people who were without power just two weeks ago in a large planned power cut.

    48

    Number of hours of power outage expected

Mr Spencer Tangen, a weather service meteorologist in Monterey, California, said the agency was expecting dry, offshore winds to ramp up yesterday, peaking at night and continuing into this 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 various counties, including Los Angeles and San Bernardino. At least two major blazes have already broken out in that region in recent days, including the Saddle Ridge Fire that destroyed about 3,561ha 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," Mr Johnson said of blazes that have broken out in Southern California.

Low humidity will cover California this week, according to the National Weather Service, with temperatures expected to hit 35 deg C.

PG&E was forced into bankruptcy after its equipment was identified as the cause of devastating blazes that included the Camp Fire last November 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.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 24, 2019, with the headline 'Over half a million Californians face second mass blackout in a month'. Print Edition | Subscribe