Californians Suffer Unprecedented Fire Blackouts
October 14, 2021

California utilities started cutting power to residents to prevent wildfires in an unprecedented move for this time of year.

The measure is designed to prevent live wires from sparking blazes as high winds are set to sweep through the drought-weary state amid summer-like temperatures. More than 290,000 homes and business are at risk of losing electricity, utilities said.

Edison International’s Southern California Edison said it cut service to about 50 customers, while about 285,000 customers in mountains and valleys in the Los Angeles area face blackouts within 48 hours due to a forecast of a strong Santa Ana wind event.

PG&E Corp. said Monday that it will switch off 5,465 customers living in the southern part of the state’s Central Valley and Sierra Nevada foothills, down from an earlier estimate of about 21,000.

These power cuts are extremely rare in the winter and utilities have never warned of a possible shutoff of this size in January. The blackouts planned this week could affect more than 850,000 people, based on the average size of the state’s households.

The new shutoffs underscore how wild California’s weather has become as climate change brings about increasingly extreme warmth and drought. Last year, record temperatures took down large swaths of the state’s power grid and wildfires torched more acreage than ever before.

Read more: California’s Climate Tinderbox: A Scientist on the Fire Crisis

During a regular winter, public safety power shutoffs “would not be under consideration, but this winter has been anything but normal,” PG&E meteorologists said on the utility’s website. Only 22% of the average rainfall this winter has fallen in the southern Sierra, they said.

High winds, along with low humidity that has dried brush and grasses making them easier to burn, will create critical conditions Monday and Tuesday, the U.S. Storm Prediction Center said in a forecast.

“Recent fuel sampling indicates that the vegetation is still unseasonably dry and ripe for larger wildfires during windy periods,” Edison’s spokesman Reggie Kumar said by phone. “The last two months of 2020 were part of the worst fire season that California has seen, with near-record levels of dryness in November and December.”

A storm system will near Southern California later this week and could bring cooler temperatures, though the region probably won’t get any rain from, said Bryan Jackson, a forecaster with the U.S. Weather Prediction Center. On Sunday, California saw temperatures rise to the 70s Fahrenheit in the central part of the state, setting records for the day in San Francisco, and into the 80s to the south, the National Weather Service said.

While the winter months usually mark California’s rainy season, much of the state remains gripped by drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.