The Robert Young Estate Winery is seen as the Kincade fire burns in the distance, in Geyserville, California, U.S. October 24, 2019. REUTERS / STEPHEN LAM
The Robert Young Estate Winery is seen as the Kincade fire burns in the distance, in Geyserville, California, U.S. October 24, 2019. REUTERS / STEPHEN LAM

San Francisco — More than half a million people have lost power across California as part of a deliberate blackout designed to keep power lines from igniting wildfires. Meanwhile, a blaze has erupted.

PG&E Corporation and other utilities have cut services to nearly 200,000 homes and businesses in shut-offs that could eventually affect 1.5-million people as wind storms threatens to knock down power lines.

About 130km north of San Francisco, a fire ripped through more than 4,000ha in Sonoma County in just hours.

PG&E has been taking more extreme measures to prevent wildfires since its equipment sparked a series of blazes that devastated California in 2017 and 2018, saddling the state’s largest utility with an estimated $30bn in liabilities and forcing it into bankruptcy.

Two weeks ago, the company carried out the biggest planned blackout in California history, plunging 2-million people into darkness and triggering a debate over how far the state is willing to go to keep fires from happening.

As the fire burnt in Sonoma County on Thursday, PG&E shares slid as much as 13%. The blaze, called the Kincade fire, is north of Geyserville in PG&E’s service territory. But the power had been cut off before the fire began, according to a spokesperson for the Sonoma county sheriff’s office. The cause has not been determined, she said.

The blaze, in a sparsely populated area of Wine Country, burnt two structures and remained uncontained at 7am local time. About 300 people were told to evacuate, the sheriff’s office said.

A PG&E spokesperson said the blaze is near PG&E’s shut-off “footprint”. He referred questions about the blaze to state fire officials. The company has cut power to 178,000 homes and businesses as part of its shut-off.

While fire danger remains high across Northern California, the areas most prone to blazes on Thursday were in Southern California, including near the San Gabriel and Santa Ana mountains, according to the US Weather Prediction Centre. Winds may slow on Friday, but are forecast to regain strength over the weekend as a front moves into the region bringing higher gusts and drier air.

“It is the worst of all scenarios,” said Bob Oravec, a senior weather forecaster.

In the Los Angeles area, Edison International has cut power to nearly 16,000 homes and businesses and warned it may do the same for 286,000 more. In San Diego, Sempra Energy blacked out about 400 customers but estimated 42,000 more could follow suit.

Once the winds have died down, utilities must inspect and repair lines before restoring service. PG&E has a goal of returning power to the vast majority of customers within 48 hours of the weather passing, potentially just in time for the next wind storm to hit.

The PG&E blackout that struck earlier in October drew outrage from residents and state officials who accused the utility of cutting service to more customers than necessary and failing to properly communicate its plans. The company has since promised to improve communications.

PG&E’s equipment was identified as the cause of the Camp Fire in November 2018 that killed 86 people and destroyed the town of Paradise. It was the deadliest blaze in California history.

PG&E CEO Bill Johnson said this week’s shut-offs “don’t have anything to do with the quality of our system, or our vegetation management”.

The risk of wildfires in PG&E’s territory has increased dramatically over the past several years due to drought and changes in weather patterns, he said.

Bloomberg