More than a million Californians remained without power early Thursday after the state’s largest utility shut off electricity in an attempt to prevent windblown power lines from sparking devastating wildfires.
Pacific Gas & Electric Co. began cutting power to customers shortly after midnight Wednesday in counties around Sacramento. The utility continued to cut power overnight into Thursday morning, affecting 234,000 customers in Alameda, Alpine, Contra Costa, Mariposa, San Joaquin, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Stanislaus and Tuolumne counties.
By early Thursday, PG&E had restored power to some 125,000 customers across the state, including 74,000 sites in Humboldt County. But by sunrise, 600,000 outages were in effect. That number was less than the projected 800,000 the utility had anticipated would lose power in the widespread outage.
However, that number could climb during the day, depending on weather conditions. The utility is still considering cutting power to about 4,000 customers in the southern portion of its coverage area in Kern County.
Morning brought fierce winds to several counties in Northern California, the kind that bends treetops and causes cars to swerve.
The National Weather Service on Thursday issued a red flag warning for much of the region, signaling northerly winds between 15 and 30 mph, with gusts up to 50 mph and very low daytime humidity. Winds are expected to last from 10 a.m. Thursday through Friday.
The high winds and dry weather create ideal fire conditions, authorities warn, with the potential to transform a spark into a raging inferno. PG&E fears windblown electrical lines could spark fires if power is not cut.
The utility has warned that some customers may be in the dark for up to five days, even after the winds subside, as the utility checks equipment and repairs fallen lines before restoring electricity.
The PG&E blackout marks the largest power shutoff to date as California utilities attempt to reduce the risk of wildfires that have charred thousands of acres, caused billions of dollars in damage and spurred cries for widespread change in how electricity is delivered over the state’s aging grid.
Equipment malfunctions have been tied to some of the state’s most destructive and deadliest fires, including the 2017 wine country blazes and last year’s Camp fire, which devastated the town of Paradise and killed 85 people.
In January, PG&E filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, anticipating multibillion-dollar legal claims stemming from the Camp fire, which also destroyed nearly 14,000 homes. A month later, officials at the utility acknowledged that its equipment probably sparked that blaze.
Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) said Thursday he sent a letter to the state Public Utilities Commission asking the panel to conduct a review of how PG&E decided which areas should lose power and how the blackouts were implemented.
“Many questions remain unanswered as the state reels from the consequences of this decision by PG&E, chief among them why is PG&E alone in making this decision?” Hill wrote to the commission.
In Southern California, residents have anxiously watched how the power shutdowns have affected other parts of the state, wondering whether it was a glimpse at what was to come for them.
Southern California Edison said Thursday that it still was considering preventive power outages across its service area. Given the strong Santa Ana winds forecast for the area, the utility said, power could be cut off to more than 173,000 customers in parts of nine counties in Southern and Central California: Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Riverside, Orange, Ventura, Kern, Tulare, Inyo and Mono.
The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power said there were no plans to shut off power to residents in L.A. because the city is highly urbanized, with fewer wildfire-prone areas and an “extensive fire-suppression infrastructure.”
Times staff writers Anita Chabria and Patrick McGreevy contributed to this report.