A helicopter drops water on the Carr fire burning in the hills west of Redding, California in July 2018. Picture: REUTERS
A helicopter drops water on the Carr fire burning in the hills west of Redding, California in July 2018. Picture: REUTERS

Hundreds of thousands of Californian homes and businesses started to lose electric power early on Wednesday as part of an unprecedented effort by Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) to prevent wildfires, the utility said.

Nearly 800,000 northern and central Californian homes and businesses can expect to lose electricity for up to several days, starting on Wednesday, PG&E said.

State investigators determined in May that PG&E transmission lines had caused 2018’s Camp Fire. That fire killed 85 people, making it the deadliest in California’s history.

The company had already filed for bankruptcy protection by then, citing potential liabilities of more than $30bn from the Camp Fire and the 2017 North Bay Fires.

Conditions before the fires were about the same then as they are now in the region. Gale-force winds are expected to last through midday on Thursday, with gusts up to 110km/h, PG&E said. Humidity is low, leaving the air extremely dry.

The California department of forestry and fire protection (Cal Fire) said “red-flag” warnings were posted across the entire state for what was shaping up to be the strongest wind so far this season.

Consequently, PG&E said on Tuesday, it was extending a previously announced public “safety power shut-off” to 34 counties, more than half of all the counties in California. It’s the largest such precautionary outage the utility has undertaken to date.

Once power is turned off, it cannot be restored until the winds subside, allowing the utility to inspect equipment for damage and make repairs, PG&E said.

The first phase of the outages, affecting about 513,000 customers in northern California, began after midnight, PG&E said in an early morning release. Depending on the weather, additional outages will continue at noon, the company said.

“We’re telling customers to be prepared for an outage that could last several days,” PG&E spokesperson Tamar Sarkissian told Reuters.

Some object

Some consumer advocates have objected to the precautionary disruptions, saying they can harm people who need electricity for medical equipment.

But PG&E promised to open community centres in 30 locations across the planned outage zone to furnish restrooms, bottled water, battery charging and air-conditioned seating during daytime hours.

Sarkissian said PG&E had placed 45 helicopter crews and 700 extra ground personnel on standby for inspections and repairs once the wind dies down. Some equipment locations will require workers to hike into remote or mountainous areas, she said.

Reuters