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California’s Blackout Moves South as 1.1 Million Face Cuts

David R. Baker, Mark Chediak and Brian K. Sullivan
California’s Blackout Moves South as 1.1 Million Face Cuts

(Bloomberg) -- Extreme winds surging into Southern California are prompting utilities there to start blacking out customers, with a warning that as many as 1.1 million people from Los Angeles to San Diego could soon lose power.

Santa Ana winds reaching 76 miles (122 kilometers) per hour were recorded around mid-day on a mountain in Ventura County, according to Dave Samuhel, a meteorologist with AccuWeather Inc. That’s roughly 15 miles southwest of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, where firefighters are battling one of two major Southern California wildfires that have erupted over the last three days.

‘We’re just getting under way with this major Santa Ana event,” Samuhel said by telephone, adding that the region will experience peak winds through early Thursday evening. “It’s going to be a rough 24 hours.”

As the winds whip Southern California, PG&E Corp. workers in the northern part of the state have started inspecting power lines in preparation to restore electricity from a blackout Tuesday that left 516,000 homes and businesses dark, the company said in a statement.

The Ventura County fire that began shortly before dawn on Wednesday has quickly spread over 1,300 acres, and has prompted evacuations throughout the area. In neighboring Los Angeles County, the Getty fire that began on Monday has now spread to 745 acres, and only 27% of it is contained. An evacuation order affecting about 20,000 residents near that blaze remains intact for a third day.

“It is really some of the worst conditions for fire-growth behavior in recent memory,” said Bryan Jackson, a forecaster at the U.S. Weather Prediction Center. “It is a desert wind that is coming across the area. It is a bone-dry desert wind.”

Santa Ana winds are created by high pressure over Nevada’s Great Basin as cool weather arrives in the fall. Low pressure systems in warmer California pull them along, and as they twist their way west through passes and canyons, they heat up, lose moisture and gain speed. The good news is that there’s a chance conditions will improve by the weekend, Jackson said by telephone.

The National Weather Service’s “extreme red flag warning” for the state is scheduled to end at 6 p.m. Thursday.

Edison shut off 71,000 homes and businesses as of noon local time, marking its largest deliberate outage ever to prevent wildfires. The utility is warning it may black out 304,000 more. Sempra Energy’s San Diego Gas & Electric cut off 26,000 customers in its biggest preemptive wildfire blackout.

This round of blackouts marks the fourth time in a month that California utilities are resorting to mass outages to prevent live wires from toppling in high winds and sparking wildfires. The strategy has drawn widespread outrage, and it hasn’t stopped blazes from erupting.

In Northern California, about 80% of homes and businesses served by PG&E have been without power since an earlier blackout last weekend. In all, 365,000 PG&E customers, or about 1 million people, were blacked out as of 10 a.m. local time.

PG&E, meanwhile, has agreed to issue one-tbio ime $100 credits to residential customers affected by an Oct. 9 blackout, heeding a call from California Governor Gavin Newsom. Businesses will get $250. The utility said it was the “right thing to do” after its website crashed several times leading up to the shutoffs and customers reported long wait times at call centers.

The state’s utilities are taking increasingly extreme measures to keep their equipment from igniting blazes after a series of devastating fires in 2017 and 2018 were blamed on PG&E power lines. The wildfires saddled the company with an estimated $30 billion in liabilities and forced it into bankruptcy.

PG&E’s power lines are already being probed in connection with some of this year’s fires, including the Kincade fire in Sonoma County. The blaze, which has burned 77,000 acres, was reported minutes after a PG&E line in the area malfunctioned.

On Wednesday, Citigroup analysts projected that the Kincade fire is unlikely to be costly enough to derail two competing plans for getting PG&E out of bankruptcy. The utility’s shares jumped as much as 26%. Meanwhile, shares of Edison International fell as much as 7.8% as fires spread through its territory in Southern California.

“These large-scale shutoffs are not the way we want to serve customers -- we want these shutoffs to end as bad as anybody,” PG&E Chief Executive Officer Bill Johnson said at a media briefing late Tuesday. “We’re living in extraordinary times here in California.”

(Adds high-speed winds in second paragraph)

--With assistance from Christopher Martin, Brian Eckhouse, John Gittelsohn, Dave Merrill and Michael B. Marois.

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

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Lynn Doan at ldoan6@bloomberg.net, Reg Gale, Pratish Narayanan

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