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As Fires Rage, California Braces for Biggest Blackout Yet

Mark Chediak, David R. Baker and Brian K. Sullivan

(Bloomberg) -- As wildfires rage and utilities race to restore power, the worst may be yet to come for California residents.

PG&E Corp. has restored power to about 165,000 customers in portions of 18 counties, or about 93% of those affected, the company said in a statement. Meanwhile, it is preparing to cut electricity again across much of its territory this weekend in anticipation of the strongest wind storm in years. If so, it may prove to be the biggest blackout yet.

PG&E’s shares fell 24% to $5.42 at 8:13 a.m. in pre-market trading. If they open regular trading at that level, it will be the lowest price ever for California’s largest utility, which declared bankruptcy in January. The stock plunged after PG&E told the state late Thursday that a transmission line went down where a major fire began in Northern California.

Utilities are taking extreme measures to prevent wildfires since PG&E’s equipment sparked a series of blazes in 2017 and 2018, saddling the company with an estimated $30 billion in liabilities and forcing it into bankruptcy. The broad nature of the latest shutoffs has ignited a debate over how far California must go to prevent fires amid increasingly warm and dry weather.

The blaze known as the Kincade fire is raging amid the vineyards of Sonoma County, prompting authorities to order more than 2,000 people to evacuate. As of late Thursday, it had destroyed 49 structures and scorched 16,000 acres and was 5% contained. In canyons north of Los Angeles, another fire had spread to 5,000 acres Thursday, burning several structures and forcing evacuations.

More than 50,000 people had been evacuated as of 7 p.m. local time Thursday, according to Eric Ortiz, deputy sheriff with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. The total now is probably higher, he said.

“None of us wants to be living without power,” PG&E Chief Executive Officer Bill Johnson said at a media briefing late Thursday. “But we have a single, simple and I think really important objective at work here, which is to avoid catastrophic wildfire.”

Sempra Energy, which serves the San Diego area, is reporting that about 16,000 of its customers remain without power, while Edison International has just over 28,000 still dark in Southern California, according to their websites.

PG&E is warning that this weekend’s shutoffs could rival those of Oct. 9, when a record 2 million people lost service for about a day. This time, the company is warning counties that the power may be out for two days.

Earlier on Thursday, California Gavin Newsom said this week’s blackouts seemed necessary, given how strong winds blew, but questioned the scale of the shutoffs.

The National Weather Service said gusts were expected to die down across the state by Friday -- only to pick back up this weekend.

According to the agency, the next wind storm, set to last from late Saturday through early Monday, was shaping up to be the strongest of the year and the biggest since deadly wildfires devastated California’s Wine Country in 2017.

PG&E warned Thursday that the region could see wind gusts of as high as 80 miles (130 kilometers) an hour. “We are preparing in full force,” Johnson said.

(Updates restorations, shares in the third paragraph, adds fire details in the fifth and sixth.)

--With assistance from Will Wade.

To contact the reporters on this story: Mark Chediak in San Francisco at mchediak@bloomberg.net;David R. Baker in San Francisco at dbaker116@bloomberg.net;Brian K. Sullivan in Boston at bsullivan10@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Tina Davis at tinadavis@bloomberg.net, ;Lynn Doan at ldoan6@bloomberg.net, Reg Gale, Jessica Summers

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