Two Californian energy utilities have cut power to more than 900,000 customers in a bid to stop wildfires from fallen power lines as high winds in tinder-dry conditions are forecast until the end of the week.

Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) and Southern California Edison said that almost 800,000 customers will be affected by the power cuts and 34 counties in northern, central and coastal California would be without electricity. 

In addition, southern California Edison is considering cutting power to a further 100,000 people in eight more counties in the south of the state.

Graphic from BBC an PG&E

‘Preventive Measure of Last Resort’

According to the California Public Utilities Commission shutting off large parts of the electricity grid is a “preventative measure of last resort” as they believe there is a real risk of power lines being blown over in very windy and dry conditions.

Last autumn’s deadly Camp Fire, which killed 85 people was probably ignited when a power line came into contact with trees.

PG&E, which owns the power line, announced last month that it had reached an $11 billion settlement with insurance companies for a string of claims resulting from the devasting fires of 2017 across northern California, as well as the 2018 Camp Fire. This was as well as a $1 billion payment in June in damages to local government for blazes linked to its power lines.

Despite the disruption that widescale power cuts will cause the move was defended by PG&E.

“Given the prolonged period during which the wind will unfold, and the large number of power line miles that will need to be inspected before restoration, customers are being asked to prepare for an extended outage,” the company said in a press release.

The weather in California is expected to be very windy and ripe for wildfires.

“The conditions are ripe:  dry fuel, high winds, warm event. Any spark can create a significant event,” said Ray Riordan, director of the Office of Emergency Management in San Jose, at a press conference on Tuesday.

The mayor of San Jose in central California said that the city has been preparing for an event like this since June.

Meanwhile, the Californian Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said Wednesday that its firefighters were getting ready, warned people not to be complacent and reminded them that the driest conditions are in the late autumn and that the deadliest, and most destructive fires are between October and December.

Residents Frustrated at Power Companies

Locals are frustrated by the move, but Mike Pencher a local meteorologist, told CBS that the move, though drastic, was warranted.

“It’s not an overreaction at all. As the wind comes in, the wires, of course, oscillate back and forth. If they touch, they start a fire. Cutting power is taking downed wires and high winds out of the equation,” he said

The authorities, as well as the electric companies, are warning people to prepare an emergency kit with a torch with fresh batteries, first aid gear, food and water, cash and plan for any medical needs.

Schools in affected areas were told that their students should stay at home Wednesday and await further instructions. 

But many residents are not impressed and took to social media to lay the blame for the disruption squarely at the doors of the power companies.  

“You wasted the money you should have been using on safety precautions to give dividends to your stockholders. Now you have to shut down our power like some sort of third world country. When you do shut down the power you can’t even get your notification website to work properly! Get it together PG&E! No more rate increases to pay for your incompetence,” wrote veronica Key, a resident in one of the affected areas.

In Silicon Valley, the home of the global electronics industry, many factories and facilities will not have power and generators have already sold out.

Edward Cowley