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Why Los Angeles and San Francisco Are Safe From Mass Blackouts

David R. Baker

(Bloomberg) -- Swaths of Southern California are being plunged into darkness on purpose to prevent power lines from sparking fires during the state’s latest windstorm.

But the lights are staying on in Los Angeles.

Just like San Francisco, L.A. has avoided the intentional blackouts that have upended daily life for millions of Californians. Even when their suburbs go dark, they don’t.

The reasons include fog, pavement and policy.

The municipal utility that serves Los Angeles doesn’t shut off power during high winds. As the utility explained in a recent press release, the city’s miles of pavement, numerous fire stations and relatively limited open spaces help protect it from runaway fires. There’s also the chaos that could ensue from knocking out traffic lights in the capital of car culture.

L.A.’s approach, however, isn’t foolproof. The Getty fire that’s chased celebrities from their hillside homes started when a broken eucalyptus branch sailing on the wind hit a live power line owned by the city’s utility. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power did not return a call Wednesday asking if it would reconsider its no-blackout policy as a result.

In contrast, Edison International’s southern California utility, whose service territory almost circles Los Angeles, has warned more than 370,000 homes and businesses to brace for blackouts this week.

San Francisco, meanwhile, benefits from its famously odd climate. While the rest of California heats up and dries out during the summer, San Francisco shivers in a fog bank so much a part of city life that residents have given it a name (Karl). The fog typically vanishes by October, but even then, the city never gets as dry as most of its suburbs. And the dangerous Diablo winds striking this month rarely hit the city as hard as its hilly suburbs.

As a result, San Francisco isn’t included on the state’s official map of high fire threat areas. So PG&E Corp. doesn’t cut its power when winds rise, said utility spokeswoman Ari Vanrenen. That’s not to say the city couldn’t someday lose electricity if PG&E takes down a transmission line that feeds it.

“A line serving a community that’s not in a high fire risk area could rely on a line that runs through a high fire-risk area,” Vanrenen said.

To contact the reporter on this story: David R. Baker in San Francisco at dbaker116@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Lynn Doan at ldoan6@bloomberg.net, Joe Ryan, Steven Frank

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