California's third fire-safety power blackout could be the biggest one yet

Historic fire conditions could be triggered by "one of the largest offshore wind events in years," PG&E's top meteorologist says.
Image: US-CALIFORNIA-FIRE
Structures burn at a vineyard during the Kincade Fire near Geyserville, California, on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019.Josh Edelson / AFP - Getty Images

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By Alex Johnson

LOS ANGELES — Still racing to restore power after its second massive fire-safety shutoff in two weeks, California's largest utility began alerting Northern California residents Thursday that the biggest blackout yet could begin over the weekend.

Pacific Gas and Electric Corp., or PG&E, said that by Thursday night, it had restored power to about 84 percent of the 179,000 customers who were plunged into darkness in its Northern California service area beginning Wednesday.

A power "customer" can be a single residence or a large business; a standard conversion that many utilities use assesses 2½ people per customer, meaning as many as 450,000 people lost power in Northern California this week.

The company cut power to almost 2 million people two weeks ago, the largest planned blackout on record, to protect the region from wildfires sparked by power lines.

In both events, a devilish combination of low humidity and hot, dry winds whipping in from offshore created what officials described as critical wildfire conditions. Fire crews were battling numerous wildfires Thursday that erupted both in Northern California and in the southern part of the state, where Southern California Edison shut off power to almost 78,000 people.

Bill Johnson, PG&E's chief executive, said at a news conference Thursday afternoon that the company had begun notifying customers in eight of its nine service areas that another offshore wind event expected to begin Saturday would likely require a third program of rolling blackouts. This one, he said, would likely be "on the same order as the earlier [shutoff] but of a longer duration."

He said that the company hoped to have electricity restored to all customers by late Friday, before the next round of potential blackouts.

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Scott Strenfel, PGE's principal meteorologist, said that Saturday could bring "the strongest offshore wind event of this season by far, and possibly one of the largest offshore wind events in years."

To make matters worse, brush, trees and other possible fire fuels "will be much drier than what we saw in this event," Strenfel said.

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The National Weather Service said Thursday night that projected winds this weekend could be well above record territory across most of the San Francisco Bay Area and the Santa Cruz Mountains.

"The combination of critically low humidity, dry fuels and very strong offshore winds will bring extreme fire weather across the region once again this weekend," it said.

PG&E has warned that wide-scale rolling blackouts could be needed for a decade as it races to harden its transmission systems, calling it "a multi-year journey."

"We do think that this is the new normal that we need to be prepared for," a spokeswoman for the utility told NBC News during the blackouts earlier this month.

Residents in PG&E's service area said the blackouts were beyond frustrating.

"There's no water coming from my faucets," Brenda Tinajero of Tehachapi, in Kern County, told NBC affiliate KGET of Bakersfield. "And if we don't have any power, we don't have any water."

Isacc Maldonado of Colfax, in Placer County, said his family had been stocking up on supplies and freezing giant blocks of ice to last them through the dark times.

"It's more than one day at a time now," Maldonado told NBC affiliate KCRA of Sacramento. "I just think there's got to be a better way."

Gov. Gavin Newsom, a longtime critic of what he has characterized as years of infrastructure neglect by PG&E, said Thursday that it was "infuriating beyond words" to see the disruptions "in a state as innovative and extraordinarily entrepreneurial and capable as the state of California."

"It's about decades of mismanagement. It's about focusing on shareholders and dividends over you and members of the public," Newsom said at a news conference in Los Angeles.

"It's a story about greed," he said. "And they need to be held accountable."

But Mark Quinlan, PG&E's senior director for emergency preparedness, said, "These power shutdowns are a necessary tool for public safety."

"Wildfire is terrible if you've ever seen it," he said.

PG&E is in the largest bankruptcy proceeding in U.S. history, threatened by as much as $18 billion in potential liabilities from the role its power lines played in several highly destructive fires that burned hundreds of thousands of acres of Northern California in 2017 and 2018.