Californians hit with third preventive outage in a week as high winds increase chances of more wildfires

2019-10-29 22:47:00

LOS ANGELES — The promise of a rebate may come as little relief to more than a million residents in northern and central California for whom power outages will extend for a few more days.

The state’s largest utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, said its fourth preemptive power shutoff this month — and third in a week — was being implemented Tuesday, extending the misery for weary denizens of a state being battered by wildfires.

PG&E said another extreme wind event has prompted it to cut off electric service to 597,000 residences and businesses, some of whom just had the power restored after the Public Safety Power Shutoff that began Saturday. For about 320,000 customers, the power didn’t come back, incident manager Mark Quinlan said Tuesday evening.  

“The dynamic and changing weather conditions and high fire risk means that some customers who are currently out of power from the October 26 event will remain out throughout the duration of the October 29 event,”” PG&E said in a news release.

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Experts say every customer account services an average of between two and three people, so about a million people haven’t had electricity since Saturday. Even after the wind dies down enough to allow for power restoration, PG&E personnel have to inspect thousands of miles of lines before the lights can go back on.

The extended blackouts could nullify any goodwill PG&E may gain from relenting on the rebate front. The utility will issue a bill credit for customers affected by the first shutoff this month, PG&E’s CEO and President Bill Johnson announced in a statement.

Residential customers will see a $100 credit in the next billing cycle and businesses will get $250, the utility said. Credits will not be issued for the subsequent shutoffs, PG&E said, because the company worked to improve how it notified customers. 

“This is not an industry standard practice, nor approved as part of a tariff, but we believe it is the right thing to do for our customers in this case, given the challenges with our website and call center communications,” Johnson said. 

Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has been highly critical of what he called PG&E’s mismanagement and greed, had pushed the utility to reimburse subscribers affected by the shutoffs $100 each. 

More than 20 million weary Californians have been bracing for “extreme” or “critical” wildfire risks because of a rewind of the furious winds that drove devastating blazes and forced more than 200,000 people to flee their homes.

Thousands of firefighters Tuesday battled drought conditions and stiff winds fueling the two main culprits, the Kincade Fire burning north of San Francisco and the Getty Fire in Los Angeles.

AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Paul Walker warned that gusts reaching 60 to 70 mph through Wednesday evening in Northern California could hamper firefighters battling the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County. The blaze, which had consumed more than 118 square miles, had damaged or destroyed more than 200 buildings and was only 15% contained.

The National Weather Service said almost 18 million Californians were living in areas where the fire risk was critical. Another 3.2 million face an extreme risk, the service said.

“Dry fuels and ongoing large fires continue to support ongoing critical and extremely critical fire weather conditions,” the weather service said in its fire outlook for the state.

The gloomy forecast wasn’t as severe as last weekend’s wind event when gusts howled near 100 mph. Still, Pacific Gas & Electric said it would shut off power to hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses affecting approximately 1.5 million people in 29 counties to reduce wildfire risk. 

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Scotty Richardson, who lives in the Sonoma County town of Petaluma and lost power Saturday, said he was furious with PG&E.

“PG&E can’t figure out how to deliver power reliably without killing people,” he said. “This is more than three strikes – it’s a failure of epic proportions.”

PG&E, which filed for bankruptcy in January after its power lines were blamed for fires that caused billions in damage, has stood firm on its preemptive outage efforts despite  drawing outrage from customers and state leaders.

Los Angeles County Firefighters put out a house fire that was caused by the Getty Fire in the Brentwood Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Los Angeles County Firefighters put out a house fire that was caused by the Getty Fire in the Brentwood Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles.

Despite the efforts to avoid setting off fires with its equipment, the utility admitted this week that a live, 230,000-volt transmission line malfunctioned minutes before the Kincade Fire erupted Wednesday night. CEO Bill Johnson said that it caused the blaze. Cal Fire lists the cause as under investigation.

Jim Finn’s home in Santa Rosa, Sonoma County, burned down in the 2017 Tubbs Fire and he has not rebuilt. Finn has been living in a rental property that was the only home left standing among 18 after the Kincade Fire struck.

He said seeing the same areas get ravaged by fire once again has been difficult, and he wants action taken to avoid yet another repeat.

“This is the third fire in as many years that has touched this part of the county,”” Finn said. “If PG&E is found responsible for this fire, I want to see the company broken up.”

In Los Angeles, the Getty Fire had burned through more than 600 acres, damaging or destroying more than a dozen homes, threatening 10,000 more and forcing thousands of residents to flee. The blaze was 15% contained.

“The winds have lessened, so they are in good shape right now,” Walker said. “But this won’t last long.”

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Walker said the Santa Ana winds sweeping into the region late Tuesday through Thursday will be similar to what the area saw over the weekend. Hurricane-force winds are possible, and extremely critical fire conditions will persist.

“I want to reiterate our concern for tonight,”” Los Angeles Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas said. “It takes one ember, just one ember downwind, to start another brush fire, so I encourage all people in the city of Los Angeles and the neighboring communities to register for alerts.’’

Department of Water and Power officials said a tree branch striking a power line ignited the Getty Fire, which drove celebrities like LeBron James and Arnold Schwarzenegger  from their homes.

Southern California Edison cut off power to a few hundred homes and businesses but warned that hundreds of thousands more could go dark in coming days as the winds increase wildfire risk.

“You will see gusts in the mountains and canyons of 60 or 70 mph,” Walker said. “Some wind gusts could be as high as 80 mph. Low humidity won’t help. Red flag warnings certainly will be out.”

Contributing: Gabrielle Paluch, Palm Springs Desert Sun; The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kincade Fire, Getty Fire burn as Californians get another power outage

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