PG&E Eyes Power Cuts in Parts of California Amid Fire Danger

September 23, 2019 Updated: September 23, 2019

SAN FRANCISCO—Pacific Gas & Electric is considering cutting power in an area of Northern California devastated by the deadliest wildfire in state history, as fall brings back dangerous conditions and the company tries to head off further wildfires sparked by electrical equipment.

The San Francisco-based utility was expected to decide by the evening of Sept. 23 on whether controlled power outages that would affect 21,000 customers are needed to ease the risk of wildfires.

Some of the most destructive blazes in the past two years were started by Pacific Gas & Electric Corp. power lines.

If approved by the utility, outages could occur in three northern counties later in the day. The utility previously warned of possible shut-offs in an area affecting an estimated 124,000 customers.

Strong winds, low humidity, and warm temperatures were forecast in the region through Sept. 25, and authorities issued an extreme fire danger warning for some areas. PG&E officials said they were still monitoring fire risk in all the areas.

Wind gusts could reach 50 miles per hour in the northern Sierra and foothills, and between 30 to 40 miles per hour in the Sacramento Valley and near the Pacific coast, said Eric Curth, a forecaster with the National Weather Service.

“Humidity levels are dropping and winds are picking up this afternoon,” Curth said. “The main threat is overnight when the winds pick up in the mountains and foothills.”

The controlled outages could affect portions of Butte, Nevada, and Yuba counties in the Sierra foothills.

The utility first cut off power preemptively to thousands of customers last October, affecting some 87,000 customers. The move prompted complaints and demands for reimbursement.

But the utility canceled plans to shut off power ahead of a blaze that killed 86 people and nearly destroyed the town of Paradise.

An investigation by Cal Fire said transmission lines owned and operated by the utility started the Nov. 8 fire that wiped out nearly 15,000 homes.

The investigation identified a second nearby ignition site involving PG&E’s electrical distribution lines that had come into contact with vegetation. The second fire was quickly consumed by the initial fire.

California regulators in May approved allowing utilities to cut off electricity to avoid catastrophic wildfires but said utilities must do a better job ramping up preventive efforts and educating and notifying the public, particularly people with disabilities and others who are vulnerable.

The company in January sought bankruptcy protection, saying it could not afford an estimated $30 billion in potential damages from lawsuits stemming from catastrophic wildfires.

Earlier this month, PG&E agreed to pay $11 billion to insurance companies holding 85 percent of the claims from fires that include the November 2018 Paradise blaze.

The settlement, confirmed Sept. 23, is subject to bankruptcy court approval.

It’s important for PG&E to pull itself from bankruptcy protection because it will be a big part of a wildfire fund set up to help California’s major utilities pay future claims as climate change makes wildfires more frequent and severe,

A utility in Southern California was also considering shutting off power.

Southern California Edison said Sept. 22 it was eyeing widely scattered public safety power shutdowns that would affect 10,240 customers in Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, and Santa Barbara counties as forecasters predicted gusty Santa Ana winds.

By Olga Rodriguez