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Power cut to thousands as California braces again for fire risk

Olga R. Rodriquez and Amy Taxin
Associated Press

San Francisco  — Pacific Gas & Electric started cutting power Sunday to tens of thousands of California residents and planned outages for many more to prevent the chance of sparking wildfires because of extreme fire weather.

More than 1 million people could be affected by the outages as California braces for a return of gusty winds and bone-dry weather that carry the threat of downing or fouling power lines or other equipment, which in recent years have been blamed for igniting massive and deadly blazes.

In this Oct. 10, 2019, file photo, Oakland police officers patrol a street in the Montclair shopping district during a power outage in Oakland, Calif. Pacific Gas & Electric says it may cut power to some 1 million in central and Northern California, which could see the most dangerous fire weather of the season.

Pacific Gas & Electric, the nation's largest largest utility, said power was shut off for 46,000 customers in 10 Northern California counties on Sunday, and outages were expected to continue southward, affecting as many as 361,000 customers in all. Further south, Southern California Edison said it was considering safety outages for 71,000 customers in six counties starting Monday, with San Bernardino County potentially the most affected.

The National Weather Service issued red flag warnings for much of the state, predicting winds of up to 35 mph (56 kph) in lower elevations and 80 mph (129 kph) in some mountainous areas of Southern California.

The concern is that any spark could be blown into flames sweeping through tinder-dry brush and forestland. The areas of greatest risk include the Sacramento Valley and mountainous areas of Southern California, the National Weather Service said.

The conditions could equal those during devastating fires in California’s wine country in 2017 and last year’s Kincade Fire, the National Weather Service said. Fire officials said PG&E transmission lines sparked that Sonoma County fire last October, which destroyed hundreds of homes and caused nearly 100,000 people to flee.

Southern California saw cooler temperatures and patchy drizzle during the weekend, but weather conditions were expected to change dramatically early Monday. Los Angeles County urged residents to sign up for emergency notifications and prepare to evacuate, preferably arranging to stay with family or friends in less risky areas who aren't suspected to have the coronavirus. Local fire officials boosted staffing as a precaution.

“The reality is come midnight and through Tuesday we're going to be in the most significant red flag conditions we've had this year,” said Kevin McGowan, director of the County’s Office of Emergency Management.

More than 8,600 wildfires have scorched well over 6,400 square miles (16,576 square kilometers) and destroyed about 9,200 buildings in California this year. There have been 31 deaths.

All of the huge fires have been fully or significantly contained. But more than 5,000 firefighters remain committed to 20 blazes, including a dozen major incidents, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said.

Many of this year’s devastating fires were started by thousands of dry lightning strikes. But some of the fires remain under investigation for potential electrical causes.

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Associated Press writer Christopher Weber in Los Angeles contributed to this report.