October 15, 2018 / 9:06 PM / 10 months ago

California utility puts users in the dark to dampen wildfire threat

Oct 15 (Reuters) - California’s largest public utility cut off electric power to about 60,000 customers in an unprecedented move to prevent wildfires such as those that erupted in the state’s wine country last fall, as high winds threatened to topple trees and power lines.

As faster winds were forecast on Sunday, Pacific Gas & Electric warned customers via text, email and phone of the blackout that would last until at least Monday evening, causing some schools to cancel classes in the six affected northern California counties.

The power outage, which started on Sunday, came just days after California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection found that last year’s Cascade Fire in Yuba County, which burned nearly 10,000 acres and killed four people, was started by “sagging power lines coming into contact during heavy winds.” Investigators said at least one of the lines was owned by PG&E.

Climate change-induced drought, heat and 129 million dead trees have heightened wildfire risks, PG&E said on its website.

“This is the first time that we have proactively turned off the power due to fire threat conditions,” said Melissa Subbotin, spokeswoman for the utility, which is owned by PG&E Corp . “This is the new normal. We determined that in order to ensure the safety of our customers and the communities that we serve, we would be turning power off during extreme fire conditions.”

Future power outages might be needed to prevent wildfires such as one in 2017 that destroyed 245,000 acres in northern parts of the San Francisco Bay area and killed 46 people. A report released by that state in June found that some of those fires were caused by toppling trees that made contact with PG&E power lines.

The move prompted many customers to complain on Twitter that the outage was spoiling food, disabling traffic lights and keeping them from doing their jobs.

With analysts estimating that PG&E could face having to pay billions of dollars in about 200 lawsuits on behalf of 2,700 plaintiff, California lawmakers in September passed a bill that could help the utility avoid those potentially crippling liabilities.

Due to the disruption to customers, the power cutoff was a “last resort” measure as part of a program that includes a team monitoring weather and other conditions in several high-risk counties, especially during wildfire season, typically late summer and fall, Subbotin said.

“We take into consideration climate change here as the new normal,” she added. “That has unfortunately increased the risk of wildfires.”

Customers in the counties - Amador, Calaveras, El Dorado, Lake, Napa and Sonoma - were warned of the cutoff by telephone, text message and email, Subbotin said. PG&E provides between one and 48 hours advanced notice, she added.

The Konocti Unified School District in Lower Lake, California, which includes 3,500 students, was one of four Lake County districts that closed, Superintendent Donna Becnel said.

“I always hate to cancel school,” Becnel said by telephone. “But with the number of power outages and not knowing how long it was going to last, there was no way to have classes without heat, lights and the ability to provide food for students.”

Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York; Additional reporting by Suzannah Gonzales in Chicago; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Richard Chang

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