California: PG&E warns of fresh power shutoffs for 500,000 due to fire weather

Guardian staff and agencies
Photograph: Gene Blevins/Reuters

Less than two weeks after cutting power to large swathes of northern California, the state’s largest utility is warning that dangerous fire weather could prompt it to shut off power again to about a half-million people.

Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) began notifying customers Monday that it could begin precautionary shutoffs to parts of 16 counties as early as Wednesday, mostly in the Sierra foothills and to the north of the San Francisco Bay Area.

Any blackouts would last at least 48 hours, the utility said.

Related: California power shutoffs: when your public utility is owned by private investors

The utility is concerned that winds forecast to hit 60mph at times could throw branches and debris into power lines or topple them, sparking wildfires. PG&E equipment has been blamed for igniting several of California’s deadliest and most destructive blazes in recent years, including the deadly 2018 Camp fire. The utility, facing billions in potential claims, was forced into bankruptcy.

However, the PG&E CEO, Bill Johnson, said the shutdown was about safety, not money.

“The sole intent is to prevent a catastrophic wildfire,” he said.

A huge portion of southern California is under high fire risk amid unpredictable gusts and soaring temperatures.

At least three homes were damaged or destroyed Monday evening by wind-whipped flames in a mountain community near San Bernardino in inland southern California. Earlier in the day Los Angeles firefighters beat back a blaze as it raced up canyon walls toward multimillion-dollar ocean-view homes on a coastal ridge. The Palisades fire led to evacuation orders for roughly 200 homes, and two people were injured, authorities said. An estimated 40 acres were burned, but residents were able to return home in the evening.

Officials across southern California said they were bracing for continued fire weather this week due to dangerous winds.

“This could be one of our most critical weeks of the fall season for fire weather due to very warm temperatures and bouts of Santa Ana winds,” the National Weather Service said in a statement.

Southern California Edison, which had warned of possible safety outages at any time, announced Monday evening that none would take place in the next 48 hours but said that it was monitoring the weather.

“Weather conditions might be different for Thursday,” and in that case, notification would be given Tuesday, said Edison spokeswoman Sally Jeun.

Authorities issued red flag warnings for parts of northern California on Tuesday, including the North Bay, East Bay and Santa Cruz mountains, with critical fire weather expected on Wednesday and Thursday.

PG&E’s phone, text and email warnings to 200,000 homes and businesses came about 10 days after more than 2 million people had their lights turned off by the utility when powerful winds whipped up.

The shutoffs earlier this month caused schools to close and many businesses to shutter. Residents complained PG&E communicated late and ineffectively about those power outages, even failing to keep its website running smoothly.

California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, blasted PG&E for the unprecedented size of the blackout and the communication problems. “They’re in bankruptcy due to their terrible management going back decades. They’ve created these conditions, it was unnecessary,” Newsom said about PG&E. “This can’t be the new normal.”

The shutoffs revealed the depth of California’s infrastructure problems amid a growing climate crisis. “What is clear is whatever this giant mess is, it’s not in any way acceptable or sustainable,” Costa Samaras, a climate resilience researcher and analyst, and associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University told the Guardian earlier this month.

Andy Vesey, a PG&E executive, said last week that the utility didn’t think broadly enough and underestimated the needs of their customers and local governments.

“We have to develop a mindset, or culture, of anticipation,” he said.