LOS ANGELES — Electric utilities warned Tuesday that almost a million homes and businesses in California could have their electricity shut off for several days this week to prevent power lines from sparking wildfires.
Fire weather watches stretched the entire length of the state Tuesday as the National Weather Service said strong and damaging winds coupled with relatively low humidity created the “potential of rapid spread of fire.” Forecasters said it would be the most significant offshore wind event for the region since October 2017.
“The time to prepare is now,” the weather service said — a warning the state’s power companies heeded.
Pacific Gas and Electric said it would begin turning off power in stages to nearly 800,000 residences and businesses in high-risk areas of 34 counties across the northern and central parts of the state.
The blackouts, which were projected to begin early Wednesday just after midnight, were likely to affect parts of San Jose, Oakland and Berkeley but not San Francisco or Sacramento, PG&E said.
Meanwhile, Southern California Edison said it was considering shutting off electricity to more than 106,000 residential and business customers in parts of eight counties in the southern part of the state, including parts of Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside counties.
Utilities count a single electricity account — residential or business — as a single customer, so the number of people who would be affected is well above 1 million. Because power will be turned off in stages depending on local timing of severe winds, PG&E said it couldn’t pinpoint who would be shut off or for how long.
It said customers could have their power shut off even if they’re not experiencing high winds, “because the electric system relies on power lines working together to provide electricity across cities, counties and regions.”
And it urged northern and central Californians to stock up for the long haul. While hazardous conditions were expected to extend only into Thursday afternoon, crews can’t go out to inspect damaged power lines and restore electricity until after the severe weather has passed, it said.
So “customers are being asked to prepare for an extended outage,” PG&E said.
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Ray Riordan, the emergency management director for San Jose, said Tuesday that in addition to the two days of high winds, it could take five more days for all areas to have their power restored.
“You can expect that we may not have power for seven days,” he said.
Mayor @sliccardo’s press conference on the @PGE4Me Public Safety Power Shutoff is starting now. https://t.co/BWpfPm1T0V
— City of San José (@CityofSanJose) October 7, 2019
To make matters worse, PG&E’s website — where the utility was directing customers to go to find out whether they were in one of the potentially affected areas — was balking Tuesday afternoon, failing to load pages related to the shutdown or returning broken links.
PG&E blamed high user volume and said it was working to restore access as quickly as possible.
The utility has acknowledged that its equipment “probably” started the Camp Fire, which killed 85 people, destroyed thousands of structures last year and was the deadliest and most destructive fire in state history. It has previously declared so-called public safety power shutoffs when dry, windy conditions threatened to spark fires around power lines — this will be the fourth in the past month.
But the scale of this week’s measures dwarf what’s happened in the past. The utility shut down power to about 50,000 customers in northern California late last month and to about 24,000 customers the week before that.
PG&E will open Community Resource Centers in several locations starting Wed 10/9 @ 8 am. They will remain open during daylight hrs only. Restrooms, bottled water, electronic-device charging, a/c seating for up to 100 will be available. Full list: https://t.co/vijezmus4h #PSPS pic.twitter.com/akyzAMkLha
— PG&E (@PGE4Me) October 8, 2019
“I don’t think it’s as disheartening as it is troubling,” Nicki Jones, owner of Nic’s Deli in Paradise, southeast of Redding, told NBC affiliate KNVN of Chico.
“The businesses here who do not have a backup generator — and they do lose food that they have to throw away — how many times would they be willing to do that?” Jones asked.
But Scott Anderson, who lives in Ben Lomond, in Santa Cruz County, said the shutoff was “a good thing.”
“It’s a good thing because if there was a fire in the valley here, it’s going to be tough to avoid it,” Anderson told NBC affiliate KSBW of Salinas.
“We have a backup generator on hand [and] have backup food, water in case something happens,” he said.