PG&E cuts power to 50,000 California homes and businesses during wildfire risk

(Reuters) - About 50,000 homes and businesses across Northern California were without power on Wednesday during the latest planned outage instituted by utility Pacific Gas & Electric Co to guard against risk of wildfire during dry, windy weather.

FILE PHOTO: A column of smoke from the Kincade Fire is seen at a distance in Calistoga, California, U.S., October 28, 2019. REUTERS/Stephen Lam/File Photo

The precautionary shutoffs included considerably fewer customers than originally projected as a spokeswoman for the utility said improving weather conditions allowed them to keep the lights on in many areas.

“Weather conditions ended up improving in some areas, and we were able to reduce the customer count for this (Public Safety Power Shutoff), PG&E spokeswoman Ari Vanrenen told Reuters.

The outages are a response to forecasts for humidity levels to drop and heavy desert winds to howl through the region, a scenario that strengthens the risk of wildfires ignited by downed power lines.

The utility said it was monitoring conditions for another 14,000 customers and could have to cut power to them depending on the weather. A power customer can be a single residence or a large business.

The mass blackout marks the fourth imposed by Pacific Gas & Electric Co, a unit of PG&E Corp, since Oct. 9, when about 730,000 customers were left in the dark as a preventive measure called a “public safety power shutoff.”

A series of violent windstorms of historic proportion swept California in October, powering the Kincade Fire, the most powerful of 2019 that damaged or destroyed over 400 structures and caused mass evacuations in wine country north of San Francisco.

A precautionary outage initiated on Oct. 23 hit an estimated 179,000 customers, while another run in phases from Oct. 26 through Nov. 1 affected a record 941,000 homes and workplaces, according to PG&E.

The latest mass shutoff is likely to run through midday Thursday across portions of 16 counties in northern and central California, PG&E spokeswoman Katie Allen told Reuters.

PG&E, California’s largest investor-owned utility, filed for bankruptcy in January, citing $30 billion in civil liability from major fires sparked by its equipment in 2017 and 2018.

That tally includes the state’s deadliest fire on record, the Camp fire that killed 85 people in and around the northern town of Paradise last year.

California’s current fire year so far pales in comparison with 2017 and 2018, which had the most destructive wildfires in state history.

On Wednesday, the National Weather Service issued a Red Flag warning for parts of interior Northern California due to a combination of low humidity, extremely dry fuels and gusty winds that could lead to “critical fire weather conditions.”

Reporting by Maria Caspani in New York, Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico, and Steve Gorman and Dan Whitcomb in Culver City, California; Editing by Matthew Lewis