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PG&E Eyes Power Cuts In Parts Of California Amid Fire Danger

Rich Pedroncelli
AP Photo
In this Nov. 26, 2018, file photo, a Pacific Gas & Electric lineman works to repair a power line in fire-ravaged Paradise, Calif.

Pacific Gas & Electric is considering cutting power to try to head off wildfires sparked by electrical equipment, as fall brings back dangerous fire conditions that led to the deadliest and most destructive blazes in California history.

The San Francisco-based utility is expected to make a decision Monday on whether controlled power outages are needed to reduce the risk of wildfires.

Some of the devastating blazes in the past two years were started by Pacific Gas & Electric Corp. power lines.

If approved by the utility, outages could occur in nine northern counties later in the day. An estimated 124,000 people could be affected if power is shut off to the entire area.

Strong winds, low humidity and warm temperatures were forecast in the region through Wednesday, and authorities issued an extreme fire danger warning for some areas.

Wind gusts could reach 50 mph (80 kmph) in the northern Sierra and foothills, and between 30 to 40 mph (48 to 64 kph) in the Sacramento Valley and near the Pacific coast, the National Weather Service said.

The controlled outages could affect portions of Butte, El Dorado, Nevada, Placer, Sutter and Yuba counties in the Sierra foothills and Lake, Napa and Sonoma counties in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Authorities in Sonoma County have declared a state of emergency to better respond in case there is a power outage. A 2017 blaze caused by a private electrical system killed 22 people and destroyed more than 5,000 homes in the Santa Rosa area.

"Prolonged power outages could impact public safety systems, including emergency alerts," said Chris Godley, the county's emergency manager.

The utility first cut off power preemptively to thousands of customers last October, affecting some 87,000 Northern California customers. The move prompted complaints and demands for reimbursement.

California regulators in May approved allowing utilities to cut off electricity to avoid catastrophic wildfires but said utilities must do a better job ramping up preventive efforts and educating and notifying the public, particularly people with disabilities and others who are vulnerable.

The company in January sought bankruptcy protection, saying it could not afford an estimated $30 billion in potential damages from lawsuits stemming from catastrophic wildfires.

Earlier this month, PG&E agreed to pay $11 billion to insurance companies holding 85% of the claims from fires that include a November 2018 blaze that nearly destroyed the town of Paradise, killing 86 people.

The settlement, confirmed Monday, is subject to bankruptcy court approval.

It's important for PG&E to pull itself from bankruptcy protection because it will be a big part of a wildfire fund set up to help California's major utilities pay future claims as climate change makes wildfires more frequent and severe,

A utility in Southern California was also considering shutting off power.

Southern California Edison said Sunday it was eyeing widely scattered public safety power shutdowns that would affect 10,240 customers in Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino and Santa Barbara counties as forecasters predicted gusty Santa Ana winds.