More than 2 million people are in the dark in California now due to preventative electrical shut-downs meant to reduce risk of wildfires during a fire weather threat; utilities aren’t exactly sure when power will be returned, warning residents that a week or longer power outage is possible.
Strong north to east wind combined with very low humidity will continue to produce critical fire weather conditions over much of interior Northern California. Red Flag warnings are now in effect through this evening for the lower elevations, and through Friday morning for the foothills and mountains. Strong winds are also impacting areas in southern California near Los Angeles and San Diego where Red Flag Warnings are up; Red Flag Warnings are also up for portions of Nevada and Colorado, including the city of Las Vegas. A Red Flag Warning means that critical fire weather conditions are either occurring now or will shortly. A combination of strong winds, low relative humidity, and warm temperatures can contribute to extreme fire behavior.
Strong winds are likely in large swaths of California today and tonight, with damaging gusts possible at higher elevations and in mountain passes. Isolated gusts to 60 mph are possible near Irvine with gusts up to 70 mph below the Morongo Pass near Desert Hot Springs. Winds will gust 40-50 mph in canyons and exposed ridges near the Coastal Range, the foothills surrounding the Sacramento and Northern San Joaquin Valleys, the mountains of Western Plumas county, and the Northern Sierra Nevada for elevations below 6,000 feet. Isolated wind gusts to 70mph are also possible below the Cajon Pass, through the Santa Ana Mountains, and around the nearby coastal foothills. Even cities aren’t immune; in San Diego, east to northeast winds of 20-30 mph with gusts to 60 mph will occur. There, gusts up to 60 mph are possible near the coastal mountain slopes.
With winds high and humidity low, any fires that do develop will likely spread rapidly. Very low relative humidity will continue into Saturday, but with with weaker and less widespread winds expected near the coastal slopes of the mountains on Saturday morning.
Because windy conditions could knock wires down or trees and branches into wires, sparking up wildfires in the process, utilities, including PG&E in northern California, are shutting down large portions of their grid. Last spring, fire officials concluded that equipment operated by PG&E caused the most destructive wildfire in California’s history last November: the Camp Fire of 2018. That fire killed 85 people, left several firefighters injured, and destroyed more than 150,000 acres across portions of northern California. Investigators determined that PG&E-controlled electrical transmission lines near the community of Pulga, located nearly 100 miles north of Sacramento, sparked the fire. Dry vegetation, strong winds and low humidity created a perfect fire weather scenario, creating a fast-moving conflagration that burned through the communities of Concow, Paradise and Magalia.
More than 600,000 customers are in the dark now; while some areas will have their power restored, utilities are expecting to put other areas in the dark. The new power cuts will bring the total number of homes and businesses affected in Northern and Central California to about 734,000, or roughly two million people. Several hundred thousand are or will be in the dark in southern California too. According to an analysis done by the San Francisco Chronicle, cost estimates of the power outage to residents and businesses could be around $1 billion. With power out, schools and businesses are closed; banks are shuttered and gas stations can’t operate. Even people with electric cars are unable to drive them, with no place powered to charge their batteries. Traffic lights and street lighting is also out across the state, creating traffic jams for those that brave the roads. There is growing concern that an extended power outage could hurt people: those on fixed incomes losing spoiled, perishable foods, and those on life-saving medical devices, such as oxygen generators or CPAP machines, are unable to keep their medical devices running interruption-free.
The utility companies aren’t sure when power will return. Utility companies, including PG&E, warned that it could take days to restore power because all power lines would need to be inspected for possible wind-related damage before electricity could once again flow. With tens of thousands of miles of wires to inspect, the process of reviewing them could take 5 or more days. With another wind event possible next week, it’s possible the power could be out to some for a week or two or longer.