California braces for fires, outages in season’s worst winds

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(Bloomberg) -- California is bracing for the most powerful gusts of the 2020 fire season, raising the threat of widespread blackouts and more blazes in a region that’s already seen a record 4.1 million acres scorched this year.

A storm coming off the Pacific into Oregon and Washington will push winds over the Sierra Nevada mountains, where gusts could reach up to 70 miles (112 kilometers) per hour in canyons and atop ridges on Sunday and Monday, according to the National Weather Service.

It raises the prospect that PG&E Corp., the state’s biggest utility, could shut power starting Sunday to prevent live wires from sparking blazes. The outages could affect a far larger area -- and more people -- than any of the company’s previous preemptive shutoffs this year, impacting the San Francisco Bay Area, a wide swath of the Sierra Nevada foothills, the Central Valley and the Central Coast, according to its website.

“Sunday, Monday and Tuesday -- that is when the fire risk is really going to be enhanced, especially across Northern California,” said Jim Rouiller, lead meteorologist with the Energy Weather Group. “That is the target area.”

Much of the U.S. West is under threat from wildfires as dry weather and stiff winds have turned hillsides, forests and scrub land into tinderboxes. In California, blazes this year have killed 31 people and destroyed more than 9,200 homes and businesses. In Utah, a utility is warning it may cut power to avoid fires. And in Colorado, officials closed Rocky Mountain National Park as firefighters battle nearby flames.

Further east, winds ahead of this weekend’s Pacific storm will bring some dangers to Colorado and Utah on Saturday before rain and snow sweeps the region on Sunday, potentially bringing down the curtain on the worst of the fire season there, said Dave Houk, a meteorologist with AccuWeather.com.

“This may actually, more or less, put an end to the Colorado fire season,” Houk said. “That is being a little optimistic, but certainly it will be better going forward.”

In Utah, the arid weather has prompted Berkshire Hathaway Inc.’s Rocky Mountain Power to warn it may cut power to about 1,800 customers in Sundance and Summit Park.

PG&E already has turned off power multiple times this autumn during dry, windy conditions when tree branches can blow into power lines and start a blaze. The company began resorting to the practice after its equipment caused some of California’s worst blazes, forcing the company into bankruptcy last year. PG&E emerged from Chapter 11 in July after having paid $25.5 billion to resolve fire claims.

“They have a lot of work to do not just to restore their power but to restore the trust that they have failed to earn over the course of decades,” Governor Gavin Newsom said during a briefing Friday. “That is self-evident to anyone living in the Bay Area.”

The blackouts this year have been more targeted, focusing mostly on Sierra foothill communities and higher elevations of the Bay Area.

Firefighters stand together during a controlled burn during the Glass Fire near Calistoga, California, U.S., on Friday, Oct. 2, 2020. Even as firefighters in Northern Californias wine country battle a blaze that forced the evacuation of entire towns, a forecast of extreme heat and dry winds threatens to breath new life into the inferno.
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