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1 million Californians set to lose power as power company fears gusty winds could snap branches


California, which has endured its worst wildfire season in history, is bracing for the most dangerous winds of the year.

The forecast prompted the largest utility to announce plans to cut power on Sunday to nearly 1 million people to guard against its equipment sparking new blazes.

Pacific Gas & Electric Co. said the outages would start in far Northern California and ultimately could affect 386,000 customers in 38 counties, with many of the shutoffs concentrated in the San Francisco Bay Area. 

At a Saturday night briefing, utility officials said high winds were expected to arrive midday Sunday and reach 40 to 60 mph with higher gusts in the mountains. Winds that strong can topple trees and send branches into power lines.

Pacific Gas and Electric may cut power to more than 1 million people in Northern and Central California on Sunday from 10am for as long as 24 hours. (File photo from September 2020)

California, already devastated by wildfires, is facing what could be the biggest fire threat of the year

Tinder dry conditions couples with strong winds make it ideal conditions for wildfire to spread

The region is likely to be at risk throughout Sunday and into Monday morning

Earlier this month, parts of Oakland, California were without power due to the presence of strong winds and dangerous fire weather. Similar is likely to happen on Sunday

Some of the largest and deadliest fires in recent years were started by utility equipment being damaged by high winds, so PG&E has been aggressive about pre-preemptively cutting power when fire conditions are most dangerous. This will be the fifth time PG&E has cut power to customers this year and by far the largest shutdown.

‘We obviously recognize that power outages present hardships. That’s why we try to make it as small as we can,’ PG&E incident commander Mark Quinlan said, noting that the planned shutdown had been reduced from 466,000 customers.

Cities throughout the region planned to open emergency operations centers and add police officers and firefighters to patrol high-risk areas. 

Officials also were encouraging people to have their cellphones fully charged or, if they have a landline, to connect an older model phone that doesn’t depend on electricity.

In Berkeley, just east of San Francisco, officials recommended residents consider leaving the hills before Sunday afternoon, especially if they would have trouble getting out quickly during a fire. In neighboring Oakland, where a blaze in the city’s hills in October 1991 killed 25 people, at least 10 parks will close Sunday and Monday.

PG&E says it could begin safety shutoffs Sunday morning as gusts and low humidity ramp up the risk of downing power lines and sparking massive fires in tinder-dry brush

Pacific Gas & Electric says it may cut power to some 1 million people this weekend in central and Northern California, which could see the most dangerous fire weather of the season

‘I would ask all of the people who live in high-impact areas mimic us and plan ahead of time and do the planning with their neighbors, with their families and within their own households so that if they are asked to evacuate they’re ready and not just then starting to figure it out,’ Oakland Assistant Fire Chief Robert Lipp said.

While about one-third of the affected customers will be in the Bay Area, cuts are predicted to encompass parts of the Sacramento Valley, the northern and central Sierra Nevada, the Santa Cruz Mountains, the Central Coast and parts of southern Kern County. 

The projected shutoffs included 19,000 customers in parts of Butte County, where in November 2018 a blaze ignited by PG&E equipment destroyed much of the town of Paradise and killed 85 people, the most in state history.

Scientists say climate change has made California much drier, meaning trees and other plants are more flammable. Traditionally October and November are the worst months for fires, but already this year California 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. There have been 31 deaths.

Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) workers inspect a fire damaged property last month

Wildfires in September made for some eerie scenes in San Francisco as smoke blocked the sunlight and turned the sky a dark orange and yellow shade for most of the day

Four of the five largest fires in state history occurred since mid-August, when a massive series of lightning strikes sparked hundreds of fires. All of the largest fires have been fully or significantly contained. But more than 6,000 firefighters remain committed to 19 blazes, including a dozen major incidents, according to state fire officials.

Almost all of Northern California is in moderate to extreme drought. The combination of high winds, very low humidity and a parched landscape has the region on edge.

The National Weather Service issued red flag warnings for many areas, meaning fire danger is extremely high. It said the conditions could equal those during devastating fires in the Bay Area’s wine country in 2017 and last year’s Kincade Fire that burned a large swath of Sonoma County.

Fire officials said PG&E transmission lines sparked the Kincade Fire last October, which destroyed hundreds of homes and caused nearly 100,000 people to flee.

‘Given that vegetation is now at or near record dryness levels — much as it was prior to the North Bay firestorm in October 2017 — this is a very concerning forecast,’ Daniel Swain, climate scientist with UCLA and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, wrote in a blog post.

At Silverado Ace Hardware store in Calistoga, people were buying generators, electrical cords, flashlights, batteries, gas cans and other items, said Kathleen Collins, the store’s assistant manager.

Idea is to avoid a situation in which wind gusts snap off tree branches or damage equipment, creating sparks that could ignite dry brush and lead to a wildfire. Pictures, Pacific Gas & Electric crew works on replacing poles destroyed by wildfires (file photo)

The Napa County town of 5,000 people has been affected by many of the power outages this year. But in the previous outage, the PG&E brought in temporary generators to provide electricity.

‘The generators are are still set up out there, so I’m hoping they’re going to keep our power up,’ Collins said.

She said losing power is becoming a common occurrence, and people are having to live without electricity for days at time.

‘There’s not much we can do about it,’ Collins said. ‘We’ve already been devastated so much by these fires. Being without power seems the only solution right now.’

Southern California, which enjoyed several days of cool temperatures and higher humidity, will see the return of warm, dry Santa Ana winds. 

A fire weather watch is in effect for much of Los Angeles and Ventura counties from late Sunday through Tuesday. Relative humidity levels will plummet, and winds could top 55 mph in valleys, with gusts of 75 mph possible in mountain areas.

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