Utility cuts power to 26,500 Californians over wildfire risk

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FILE – In this Oct. 10, 2019, file photo a vehicle drives through a darkened Montclair Village as Pacific Gas & Electric power shutdowns continue in Oakland, Calif. Pacific Gas & Electric says it may cut power to some 1 million people this weekend in central and Northern California, which could see the most dangerous fire weather of the season. PG&E says it could begin safety shutoffs Sunday morning, Oct. 25, 2020, as gusts and low humidity ramp up the risk of downing power lines and sparking massive fires in tinder-dry brush. (AP Photo/Noah Berger, File)

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Pacific Gas & Electric started cutting power Sunday to tens of thousands of customers in Northern California and planned outages for many more to prevent the chance of sparking wildfires due to extreme fire weather.

The nation’s largest utility said outages began in the north of the state in Shasta, Tehama, Glenn, Colusa and Lake counties and were expected to continue southward throughout Sunday and possibly into Monday.

Power was initially cut to 26,500 customers. As many as 361,000 customers in 36 counties could be affected by the planned outages. Previously, the company announced more expansive blackouts but said it had scaled back in some areas due to shifting weather forecasts.

California is bracing for a return of gusty winds and bone-dry weather that carries the threat of downing or fouling power lines or other equipment that in recent years have been blamed for igniting massive and deadly blazes.

The National Weather Service issued red flag warnings for many areas, predicting winds of 35 mph (56 kph) or higher in San Francisco and lower elevations and up to 70 mph (113 kph) in some mountains. The concern is that any spark could be blown into flames sweeping through tinder-dry brush and forestland.

The conditions could equal those during devastating fires in California’s wine country in 2017 and last year’s Kincade Fire, the National Weather Service said. Fire officials said PG&E transmission lines sparked that Sonoma County fire last October, which destroyed hundreds of homes and caused nearly 100,000 people to flee.

Southern California saw cooler temperatures and patchy drizzle during the weekend, but weather conditions were expected to change dramatically overnight. Los Angeles County urged residents to sign up for emergency notifications and prepare to evacuate, preferably arranging to stay with family or friends in less risky areas who aren’t suspected to have the coronavirus.

“The reality is come midnight and through Tuesday we’re going to be in the most significant red flag conditions we’ve had this year,” said Kevin McGowan, director of the County’s Office of Emergency Management.

Southern California Edison announced on its website it was considering safety outages for 75,000 customers in six Southern California counties. San Bernardino County was expected to be the most affected by those potential cuts.

More than 8,600 wildfires have scorched well over 6,400 square miles (16,576 square kilometers) and destroyed about 9,200 buildings in California this year. There have been 31 deaths.

All of the huge fires have been fully or significantly contained, but more than 5,000 firefighters remain committed to 20 blazes, including a dozen major incidents, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said.

Many of this year’s devastating fires were started by thousands of dry lightning strikes. But some of the fires remain under investigation for potential electrical causes.

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