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Orange Skies Blanket California as Fires, Blackouts Persist

Orange Skies Blanket California as Fires, Blackouts Persist
Orange Skies Blanket California as Fires, Blackouts Persist
David R. Baker and Mark Chediak

(Bloomberg) -- Dozens of major fires have smothered California in a dense blanket of smoke, blotting out the sun, turning the sky an ominous shade of orange and coating cars in ash.

The fires have been stoked by a powerful windstorm that prompted PG&E Corp. to switch off power to half a million people to prevent more blazes, but as the winds began to ebb Wednesday, the utility was able to began inspecting lines for damage. By mid-afternoon it had restored power to more than 60,000 homes and businesses.

The smoke is complicating an already daunting task, with 10,750 miles (17,300 kilometers) of electrical lines the utility must check.

READ: PG&E Starts Restoring Electricity to 500,000 Californians

At the southern end of the state, utilities owned by Edison International and Sempra Energy had initially been considering cutting electricity to about 100,000 people, but have now dropped those plans.

So dense was the smoke that by noon, streetlights remained lit in many communities, and cars needed headlights to drive, their beams catching bits of drifting ash. Residents competed to post the grimmest photos, under the hashtag #apocalypse2020.

“I grew up in the Bay Area and San Francisco, and the number of photographs that have been sent by family and friends this morning overwhelmed my inbox,” Governor Gavin Newsom said Wednesday in a press conference. “There’s obvious concerns about air quality.”

The shutoffs and darkened skies are the latest blows for California, where climate change is making weather ever more extreme. Temperatures have soared to records from Napa to Los Angeles, forcing the state’s power grid to the brink. Wildfires have torched more than 2.5 million acres this year, the most on record.

California’s utilities have resorted to shutting down power lines in advance of high winds to prevent sparks from igniting fires. And the practice is now spreading to other states, with Portland General Electric Co. blacking out 5,000 homes and businesses Monday as the same wind storm raked California’s battered neighbor Oregon as well.

In California, gusts topping 60 miles per hour fanned fresh life into some blazes that began during a freak lightning storm last month -- while sparking more than 50 new ones, Newsom said.

Wind-driven blazes also erupted across Oregon, which declared a statewide fire emergency as officials said downed power lines had sparked multiple blazes.

“Over the last 24 hours, Oregon has experienced unprecedented fire, with significant damage and devastating consequences across the entire state,” Governor Kate Brown said during a briefing Wednesday. “I want to be upfront and say we expect to see a great deal of loss, both in structures and in human lives.”

Against that grim backdrop, PG&E’s announcement early Wednesday that it would begin line inspections brought some measure of relief. California’s largest utility starting late Monday cut power to 172,000 customer accounts -- or about 516,000 people, given the size of a typical household -- in portions of the Sierra Nevada foothills and the San Francisco Bay Area as the winds approached. The vast majority of them will have power restored by the end of the day Wednesday, PG&E said.

Read More: California’s Worst Wildfire Season Ever Is About to Get Uglier

In August, California carried out its first rotating blackouts since the 2001 energy crisis to cope surging demand for electricity as extreme temperatures kicked air conditioners into overdrive. The Trump administration on Sept. 6 declared a power emergency, allowing generating plants to run at full bore, regardless of environmental limits.

The shutoffs are a fairly new and controversial practice to prevent wildfires, and their use by PG&E last year triggered investigations, even as utilities defended them as necessary in the face of increasingly wild weather.

The company emerged from Chapter 11 in July after agreeing to pay $25.5 billion to settle wildfire lawsuits over fires sparked by its equipment, and PG&E has taken steps to limit the size and duration of outages, including putting wires underground in some locations.

September and October typically mark the peak of California’s fire season, when plants have been sapped of moisture by the state’s dry summer. Rains most often return in October or November.

Read More: Blackouts Tied to Wildfires Are Spreading Beyond California

(Updates with Southern California utilities’ updated plans in fourth paragraph, comments from California and Oregon governors starting in sixth paragraph.)

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