(Bloomberg) — Parts of California will go dark Wednesday afternoon in a mass blackout that could eventually leave more than a million people without power. And more shutoffs could come over the weekend.
PG&E Corp. will begin cutting power to 179,000 customers in 17 northern and central California counties on Wednesday afternoon in an attempt to keep its power lines from sparking wildfires amid hot, dry winds. In Southern California, Edison International is warning that it may cut service to another 308,000, and Sempra Energy is considering a shutoff in the San Diego area. In all, about 1.5 million people may be affected.
The threat of widespread shutoffs is hitting just two weeks after PG&E carried out the biggest planned blackout in California history, plunging about 2 million people into darkness, knocking out traffic lights and forcing businesses to shut. The outages have ignited a debate over how far California and its utilities are willing to go to avoid catastrophic fires.
PG&E’s cutoffs are scheduled to start around 2 p.m. in the Sierra Foothills, and they are expected to spread into other areas through early Thursday. The worst of the winds are forecast to slow by noon Thursday. Meanwhile, high winds could return over the weekend, and into next week, according to the National Weather Service. PG&E has warned that there’s an “elevated risk” of shutoffs in eight of of its nine geographical zones starting Sunday. It said that storm may prove even bigger and stronger.
“A small shift in the track will make a big difference,” said Spencer Tangen, a weather service meteorologist in Monterey, California. “There is a pretty high threat Saturday night into Sunday and possibly Sunday night into Monday and it is looking like they could be stronger than what we are seeing with this current one.”
The threat of wildfires was listed as critical across the state Wednesday with dry winds set to “ramp up considerably” with Thursday forecast to be the worse day for storms across Southern California, the weather service said.
Edison didn’t say when it may decide on a shutoff Wednesday.
The blackout had one entirely predictable effect: Generac Holdings Inc., which provides back-up generators and saw a spike in demand during the last California blackout, rising as much as 3.7% to a record $90.26.
Sometime later this month or in early November, if the weather cooperates, the U.S. Forest Service will fly a pair of fire-spitting helicopters over a remote mountain in southern Utah and set the forest ablaze.
While the helicopters are pelting burning liquid fuel at the treetops, dozens of firefighters will be providing support on the ground, using drip torches and flamethrowers to create a towering wall of flame that will stretch from the forest floor to the sky. As the heat builds and the blaze roars across spruce- and fir-stippled canopies, a small army of scientists will launch weather balloons and drones, drive radar- and LIDAR-equipped trucks around the perimeter, fly specialized research planes overhead, and gather data on fire-hardened GoPro cameras to analyze the inferno from start to finish.
It will be among the fiercest controlled burns scientists have ever studied in the wild—“as close to a wildfire as you can expect,” says Roger Ottmar, the principal investigator for the Forest Service–led Fire and Smoke Model Evaluation Experiment (FASMEE). The goal? To collect data on every aspect of the fire at once, in order to improve the models scientists and land managers use to predict the impacts of fires. That will allow the agency to oversee more controlled burns on landscapes that need fire to thrive, and the data will also provide insight into the large, intense blazes that keep erupting across the West—the types of unruly fires that climate change and changing land-use patterns are making more common.