In a matter of weeks, California has been hit with two record-breaking heat waves, hundreds of blazes, freak lightning storms and dangerously poor air quality, and now unusually strong winds are threatening to knock down power lines and ignite more wildfires.
That’s prompting the state’s largest utility to impose power cuts for more than 500,000 people, and with dangerous conditions stretching across the West, Portland General Electric Co. has also switched off power to some Oregon customers.
The shutoffs that PG&E Corp. began late Monday are the latest blow for the disaster-weary California, where climate change is making weather ever more extreme. Temperatures have soared to records from Napa to Los Angeles. Wildfires have torched more than 2 million acres, the most in records stretching back three decades. Hundreds of thousands of people may go dark for days while trapped indoors due to wildfire smoke and Covid-19 outbreaks.
The U.S. Forest Service said in a statement Monday that most of California “remains under the threat of unprecedented and dangerous fire conditions.” It has temporarily closed eight national forests, including Sierra National Forest.
“Existing fires are displaying extreme fire behavior, new fire starts are likely, weather conditions are worsening, and we simply do not have enough resources to fully fight and contain every fire,” Randy Moore, regional forester for the forest service’s Pacific Southwest Region, said in the statement.
California narrowly escaped rotating blackouts Saturday and Sunday, as temperatures soared past 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) in much of the state, squeezing the power grid to its brink. The fires only made things worse, taking down power plants and transmission lines, cutting power to 70,000 homes and businesses.
While temperatures were lower Monday in some areas, officials said they were still concerned about getting through the afternoon, in part because of the fires. But in a tweet Monday night, the grid operator said it wouldn’t order power outages.The heat is poised to ebb only slightly Tuesday. Sacramento is forecast to hit 97. Oakland will be 91. And Los Angeles will be 87.
The latest blazes are already wreaking havoc on the grid. The Creek Fire in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which has scorched more than 78,000 acres, knocked out transmission from a hydro plant on Saturday.
September and October typically mark the peak of California’s fire season, when plants have been sapped of moisture by the state’s dry summer. Rains most often return in October or November.
Last year, when California’s utilities first began carrying out widespread blackouts like this, some homes and businesses were left in the dark for days. That drew outrage from state and local officials, triggered investigations and prompted PG&E to reassess the scope of future shutoffs. The company has taken steps to limit the size and duration of outages, including putting wires underground in some locations.
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