Millions of California remained without power Thursday after one of the state's largest power utilities turned the lights off in advance of strong winds and low humidity that translate into severe fire weather for the region. As the weather conditions improved, the utility began turning the power back on for more than 100,000 homes and businesses, even as hot and dry conditions keep fire concerns high through much of Northern California.
The utility faced withering criticism on Wednesday after it warned that many homes and businesses in that part of the state could expect to have their power off for several days as technicians check the lines and ensure they will work properly when electricity is restored.
"PG&E has now restored power to approximately 50,000 customers in the Sierra Foothills since the shutoff began," the utility said in a statement. "Improving weather means patrols in some areas of Humboldt County have started. PG&E anticipates being able to restore power to 60,000 to 80,000 customers" later Thursday.
Wind gusts of nearly 60 mph were recorded Wednesday night at Mount Diablo, located east of Berkeley, the National Weather Service reported.
Power lines were blamed for one of the worst fire seasons in 2017 and 2018 after dozens of wildfires across the state burned hundreds of thousands of acres, leaving more than 80 people dead and thousands more homeless. PG&E later an $11 billion settlement to cover claims for the California wildfires after the utility declared bankruptcy due to the lawsuits.
During a press conference Wednesday night, PG&E's vice president for community wildfire safety programs, Sumeet Singh acknowledge the utility could have done more to ensure their transmission lines wouldn't spark wildfires during high fire danger conditions. But, he said he wasn't looking at the past and was concentrating on the here and now.
"This is not a decision that we take lightly," he said. "This is the measure that is needed as a last resort."
Singh and another PG&E spokeswoman blamed climate change for the increased fire dangers in recent years and that bringing PG&E's infrastructure up to date would be a "multi-year journey."
Ari Vanrenen, a spokeswoman for the utility called things like the preemptive shutdown the "new normal" Californians would have to be prepared for.
The utility instituted the so-called "public safety power shutdown" in advance of the severe weather conditions affecting much of the state. Power first went out to around 500,000 customers on Wednesday, with an additional 250,000 losing power later that night. Officials warned that Southern California could be next as the brutal Santa Ana winds are forecast to begin blowing Thursday evening/Friday afternoon.
Photo: Getty Images