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Hot Winds Sweep California, and PG&E Cuts Power to Avoid Fires

Brian K. Sullivan and Mark Chediak
·3 mins read

(Bloomberg) -- Hot and dry winds are sweeping across California, raising the prospect of more wildfires in the tinder-dry state where a record 4 million acres have already burned this year.

The winds rushing out of the north and east will rake Northern California through Friday and likely spread into the southern half of the state through the weekend, the National Weather Service said. The state’s largest utility, PG&E Corp., started cutting power to about 53,000 customers in 24 counties in its latest effort to keep gusts from knocking down live wires and igniting wildfires.

In addition, California’s grid operator called for energy conservation on Thursday in order to avoid rotating power outages amid a late autumn heat wave.

California has been plagued by wild weather all year: unprecedented heat, freak lighting storms, powerful gusts and a record-breaking wildfire season. The more than 8,500 blazes this year have killed 31 people and destroyed more than 9,200 homes and businesses, according to the state’s fire agency.

“We haven’t had any rain yet,” said Scott Rowe, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Sacramento. “Our fuels remain dry. Any fires have the potential to spread rapidly.”

PG&E’s shutoffs are expected to impact about 159,000 people, based on the average size of the California household. The vast majority of customers will have their power turned off by 10 p.m. local time Wednesday, Mark Quinlan, incident commander for the company, said during a media briefing. They will likely be without electricity until Friday evening, he said.

“The public safety power shutoff is really designed to prevent those catastrophic wildfires with this challenging climate we are in now,” Quinlan said, adding that the utility recognizes that the hardship that the service disruptions will cause during the coronavirus pandemic.

The power cuts could be especially painful for California’s wine country, where many are still reeling from a devastating blaze that broke out last month. Unlike previous blackouts, this one will also hit more densely populated parts of the San Francisco Bay area, including the city of Oakland.

Red-flag fire warnings are in effect across Northern California from the Oregon border to the Bay Area as dry winds sweep the region, the National Weather Service said. A heat advisory was also in effect for parts of the state through Friday.

PG&E has had to cut the lights multiple times this year during high winds. And in August, California’s grid operator ordered the first rotating outages since the Enron-era energy crisis of 2001 as scorching weather sent electricity demand surging.

The threat of fires is widespread across much of the U.S. West, said Marc Chenard, a senior branch forecaster at the U.S. Weather Prediction Center. Dry winds are keeping temperatures above normal along California’s coast and creating conditions where fires can spread.

See also: Is Rebuilding in Fire-Prone Areas Worth It? Homebound Thinks So

A little more than 92% of 11 western states are abnormally dry with drought conditions entrenched across nearly 78% of the landscape, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. In California, close to 68% of the state is in drought and nearly 85% is abnormally dry. California gets most of its water from rain and snow between November and April, with the bulk of that falling in December, January and February.

As winds ebb in Northern California Thursday, they will pick up in the southern half of the state, Chenard said. Temperatures in Los Angeles are forecast to hit 99 degrees Fahrenheit (37 Celsius) Friday, the weather service said.

(Updates with grid operator warning in third paragraph, PG&E comments in sixth.)

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