California power cutoff begins as wildfire risks rise

Undergrounding Power lines

PG&E could conduct a “public safety power shutoff” across most of Northern California this week

PG&E's service warning includes parts of California's most populous areas, including Santa Clara County's nearly 2 million people and Alameda County's 1.7 million residents, according to state data.

But he said there was a sense of irony to PG&E's aggressive action in the area now, after the company opted to not to turn off the power ahead of the November 8 fire that wiped out the town of Paradise. The utility has agreed to pay billions of dollars in damages.

The utility said with certainty at a 7 p.m. news conference that about 500,000 customers across the north state would be plunged into an engineered blackout between midnight and 4 a.m.

Counties activated their emergency centers and authorities urged people to have supplies of water for several days, to keep sensitive medicines such as insulin in cool places, to drive carefully because traffic lights could be out, to have a full gas tank for emergencies and to check the food in freezers and refrigerators for spoilage after power is restored. Public officials tried to assure residents that essential services would still be available, while asking them be prepared regardless. BART has portable generators at certain stations and will have personnel monitoring the generators, a Twitter thread said. PG&E said as many as 900,000 homes it serves - serving more than 2 million people - face a planned outage through Wednesday and into Thursday. The campus will be open Wednesday, but services will be limited, the university said.

Sonoma County and the city of Santa Rosa, which were hit hard by the wine country fires in 2017, declared local emergencies and called on Newsom to declare a state emergency with the shutoff. California's transportation agency said it was preparing to close two major tunnels in the region due to the loss of power.

The conditions that are being forecast for portions of the state "historically have led to catastrophic wildfires", the utility's senior meteorologist, Evan Duffey, said Tuesday.

This is peak wildfire season in California.

The National Weather Service has issued red flag warnings and fire weather watches for areas of northern, central and southern California and "CAL FIRE firefighters are staffing up and preparing for the forecasted extreme fire weather across California", said Scott McLean, deputy chief of communications for Cal Fire. "Have your go pack ready".

"The conditions are ripe: dry fuel, high winds, warm event".

Meanwhile, SoCal Edison is also considering a power shutoff that could affect more than 100,000 customers in Southern California.

Originally estimating Monday a total of 650,000 customers, PG&E said Tuesday that about 150,000 additional customers will be affected in parts of Humboldt, Kern, Marin and Trinity counties. It's largely unprecedented. Never before have California utilities intentionally put so many people out of power for their own safety.

PG&E said communities not forecast to experience extreme weather may have their power cut as the electric system relies on power lines that work together.

PG&E has previously said it is "probable" that its equipment started the 2018 Camp Fire - the state's deadliest blaze - by coming into contact with nearby trees. Pacific Gasoline & Electrical and a gaggle of insurers say they've reached an $11 billion settlement to cowl numerous claims from the 2017 and 2018 wildfires in California.

For PG&E, forced into bankruptcy by devastating fires that its equipment has ignited over the past two years, there is no alternative.

The utility expects power to return to some locations starting at noon Thursday, but it could take as much as five days to restore electricity to all affected areas.

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