PG&E Cuts Power to More Than 45,000 in Effort to Prevent Fires

(Bloomberg) -- California utilities have shut off electricity to thousands of customers and warned more may follow across the state as hot, dry and windy weather raises the risk of another catastrophic wildfire sparked by a power line.

PG&E Corp., forced into bankruptcy in January after its equipment was blamed for two years of deadly fires, cut power to more than 45,000 customers in and around the Sierra Nevada foothills at 4:18 a.m. local time Wednesday, and planned to shut off thousands more in another round of cuts that may stretch into the North Bay area. In the mountains east of Los Angeles, Edison International’s Southern California Edison notified about 152,000 customers of possible shutoffs, though it only reported 85 had been impacted by Tuesday evening.

“Basically, the message we’d like to share with our customers in those counties is be prepared,” said PG&E spokesman Denny Boyles. “Check your cell phone batteries -- everything.”

PG&E and other California utilities have been taking more aggressive measures to keep their equipment from sparking blazes after fallen power lines ignited a series of catastrophic fires across the state in 2017 and 2018. For PG&E, the stakes are especially high. Another fire sparked by its equipment threatens to upend its restructuring plans by creating new claims that would take priority over existing ones.

One of PG&E’s lines started the deadliest blaze in California history in 2018: the Camp Fire, which devastated the town of Paradise and killed 86.

PG&E, California’s largest power company, stood poised to shut service in several counties. The company said it identified four incidents of weather-related equipment damage during the first round of shutoffs, with service to nearly all of those impacted customers restored by Tuesday. The checks will extend to “every mile” of its power lines after the dry and windy weather has passed, it added.

Sempra Energy’s San Diego Gas & Electric said Tuesday that it didn’t anticipate shutting off any of its customers this week.

Both PG&E and Edison have already cut power multiple times this year in the hopes of preventing fires. Earlier this month, Edison turned off electricity to 14,000 customers near Mammoth Mountain in the eastern Sierras as a windstorm raked the area with gusts above 80 miles (130 kilometers) per hour, according to spokesman Robert Villegas.

“Now, we sometimes have to shut off power on purpose,” Villegas said. “That’s not the kind of situation we’re used to being in. But the fires the last two years, the scale, the size, the ferocity -- it’s truly catastrophic stuff.”

PG&E made a similar decision in June, cutting power to as many as 27,000 customers in the Sierra Foothills as high winds threatened to knock down electrical lines.

Preemptive shutoffs have drawn criticism from California state lawmakers and city officials, including the mayor of San Jose. They’ve raised concerns about impacts on businesses, emergency operations and vulnerable populations such as the elderly and disabled.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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