Fire Weather Conditions Expected in Parts of Northern California. PG&E says Power Cuts are Possible

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A fire danger warning was set to take effect in Northern California late Tuesday because of strong winds and low humidity, prompting Pacific Gas & Electric to warn roughly 8,500 customers their power could be shut off in an effort to prevent a wildfire from starting if wires are downed or damaged.

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The red flag warnings were set to take effect in much of the Sacramento Valley and in parts of adjacent Lake County, the National Weather Service said Monday. Such warnings come when warm temperatures, low humidity, gusty winds and exceptionally dry fuels are anticipated, which can lead to large wildfires.

The issue of power shutoffs surfaced in Hawaii after the deadly fire that destroyed the Maui community of Lahaina. Maui County claims Hawaiian Electric Company negligently failed to cut power despite high winds and dry conditions. The utility acknowledges its lines started the fire but faults county firefighters for declaring the blaze contained and leaving the scene.

Pacific Gas & Electric, which serves most of Northern California, said potential power shutoffs could start at 3 a.m. Wednesday and could affect up to 8,500 customers, mostly on the west side of the Sacramento Valley. The shutoffs are intended to prevent fires from starting when power lines are downed by winds or struck by falling trees or windblown debris. Such fires have caused extensive destruction and deaths in California.

It would be the utility’s first such shutoff since 2021. PG&E first implemented the shutoffs in 2019, leaving nearly 2 million people in the San Francisco Bay Area and Northern California without power and drawing fierce criticism.

This time, the utility was able to reduce the impact of possible power cuts after it added more circuit switches to its grid, allowing it to more precisely determine which customers will lose power, said Paul Moreno, a PG&E spokesman.

PG&E also added hundreds of weather stations in areas prone to wildfires and now it has nearly 1,500 units that provide information on when fire conditions are present and when those conditions have passed, he said.

California has so far avoided widespread wildfires this year following an extraordinarily wet winter and cool spring that melted the mountain snowpack slowly. Downpours from recent Tropical Storm Hilary further dampened much of the southern half of the state.

“We were fortunate to have a wet year,” Moreno said.

In California, major fires have been limited to the southeastern desert and the lightly populated far northwest near the Oregon border where lightning ignited many fires this month. The largest group, the Smith River Complex, has scorched more than 115 square miles (298 square kilometers).

Southern California Edison, an electric utility company that serves Southern California, last shut down power in July to five commercial customers in Palmdale, a city north of Los Angeles.

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