Manure, trash and wastewater: U.S. utilities get dirty in climate fight

Manure, trash and wastewater: U.S. utilities get dirty in climate fight
By Nichola Groom

PIXLEY, Calif. (Reuters) – Joey Airoso has always been proud of his cows, whose milk goes into the butter sold by national dairy company Land O’Lakes. Now he has something new to brag about: the vast amounts of gas produced by his 2,900-head herd is powering truck fleets, homes and factories across the state of California.

“It’s pretty incredible if you think about it,” Airoso said during a recent tour of his 1,500-acre farm, as a stream of watered-down manure flowed from cow sheds into a nearby pit. There the slurry releases methane that is captured and eventually piped into fueling stations and buildings.

Airoso is tapping into a growing market among U.S. utilities for so-called renewable natural gas, or biomethane, that is being driven by the fight against climate change.

For farmers, it is a way to get ahead of a wave of greenhouse gas regulation and make a bit of cash at the same time. And for utilities that buy or transport the gas, it is a way to respond to the increasing demands of customers and lawmakers to cut their reliance on fossil fuels.

“It is not something very many people are aware of yet, but it makes sense once it’s explained,” said Emily O’Connell, director of energy markets policy at the American Gas Association, the trade group for gas utilities.

Renewable natural gas can come from manure, landfills or wastewater and is interchangeable with gas drilled out of the ground. It cuts greenhouse gas emissions by ensuring significant volumes of methane that would have been produced anyway never reach the atmosphere. Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide when it escapes into the air unburned.

Nationwide, more than a dozen utilities have started developing renewable natural gas production through partnerships with farmers, wastewater treatment plants and landfill operators, while nine have proposed price premiums for customers who choose it as a fuel, according to the American Gas Association industry group. Renewable natural gas is currently between four and seven times more expensive to produce than fossil gas, a gap that its proponents hope will narrow as the fuel becomes more widely used.

BUSES, STOVES

California’s SoCalGas, the nation’s largest natural gas distribution utility, is one of the industry’s top proponents of the alternative fuel. It has committed to making renewable natural gas 20 percent of its supply by 2030, said Sharon Tomkins, vice president of strategy and engagement.

She said California has enough biomethane potential “to make a significant dent in reducing the overall emissions from both the agricultural sector as well as reducing the carbon intensity of our gas stream.”

Across the country, Vermont Gas hopes to one day supply only renewable natural gas, leveraging the state’s preponderance of dairy farms. The utility’s renewable natural gas supply currently stands at less than 1 percent of overall volumes, according to spokeswoman Beth Parent. But the company is helping large energy buyers in the state, like cleaning products maker Seventh Generation, Middlebury College and Vermont Coffee Company transition to using biomethane.

CenterPoint Energy, Southwest Gas, DTE Energy and NW Natural are among the other gas utilities seeking to integrate more renewable natural gas into their systems. Last year Dominion Energy partnered with meat producer Smithfield Foods on a $250 million venture to capture methane emissions from hog farms.

“It’s good for their business,” said Marcus Gillette, spokesman for the Coalition for Renewable Natural Gas, an industry lobbying group. “Many are on missions to decrease emissions from their side of the energy sector as much as possible.”

Until now, nearly all the market for biomethane has come from bus fleets and other vehicles that are able to use state and federal subsidies to make the fuel competitive with fossil gas. Production of the fuel doubled between 2015 and 2018 to 304 million ethanol gallons equivalent thanks to the incentives, according to a report from consulting firm Bates White.

Today about three quarters of renewable natural gas production is still used for transportation, though Gillette said that is shifting as more utilities seek to provide it for heating, cooking and industrial uses.

Some states are more aggressive in bolstering the renewable natural gas industry than others.

Oregon, for example, passed a bill in August that sets a goal of making renewable natural gas account for 30% of what is carried in the state’s gas pipeline network by 2050.

California, meanwhile, has mandated a 40 percent reduction in methane emissions by 2030, something that will spell specific regulatory curbs on agriculture in the coming years. Methane accounts for about 9 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, half of which comes from livestock.

For Airoso, that made tapping into the growing biomethane market an easy decision. “We’ve got a $10 mln investment here, so I had to figure out how I protect my investment,” he said.

(Reporting by Nichola Groom; editing by Richard Valdmanis and Chizu Nomiyama)

Wildfires threaten southern California homes, prompt evacuations

Wildfires threaten southern California homes, prompt evacuations
By Gene Blevins

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – California firefighters worked through the night into early Tuesday to tackle a pair of wildfires threatening people’s homes.

Live aerial video footage broadcast by KABC-TV showed flames raging along a ridge-line at the edge of an affluent beach-front neighborhood located between Santa Monica and Malibu about 18 miles (30 km) west of downtown Los Angeles.

Initially, a mandatory evacuation was ordered for about 200 homes in the Pacific Palisades community, as ground teams and helicopters worked on putting out hot spots and carving a containment line around the fire zone’s perimeter.

However, at around 8 p.m. (0300 GMT), the Los Angeles Fire Department said all evacuation orders had been lifted from the Palisades fire, and residents could return home.

Los Angeles Fire Department spokesman Brian Humphrey said winds were relatively light, helping to keep the blaze in check by reducing the amount of burning embers blown into the air.

Meanwhile, east of Los Angeles in San Bernardino County’s Little Mountain area, a 20-acre brush fire that broke out on Monday evening and destroyed three homes, damaged six more and threatened others, fire officials said.

The cause of the fire is not known.

Four residents were hospitalized for smoke inhalation or minor burns, the San Bernardino Sun newspaper said.

Some residents in both communities tried to protect their property with garden hoses, spraying water on roofs.

San Bernardino County Fire Battalion Chief Mike McClintock warned residents against trying to fight the fire themselves, media reported.

“The biggest thing for us is if we ask people to evacuate, we want them to evacuate,” he said. “A garden hose isn’t going to stop a rapidly spreading fire.”

The blazes came about two weeks after a major wind-driven wildfire scorched nearly 8,000 acres (3,200 hectares) along the northern edge of Los Angeles, damaging or destroying dozens of structures and prompting evacuations of some 23,000 homes.

Assistant Fire Chief Patrick Butler said forecasts were for strong, dry winds to return Southern California on Thursday.

(Reporting and pictures by Gene Blevins in Los Angeles; Additional reporting Steve Gorman in Culver City, Calif., Subrat Patnaik in Bengaluru and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Alison Williams)

Wildfire threatens homes, prompts evacuations in Pacific Palisades, California

Smoke can be seen as a wild fire breaks out in the hills of Pacific Palisades in Los Angeles, California, U.S., October 21, 2019. REUTERS/Gene Blevins

Wildfire threatens homes, prompts evacuations in Pacific Palisades, California
(Reuters) – A wildfire raced up a steep hillside to threaten homes in the Southern California coastal enclave of Pacific Palisades on Monday, prompting evacuations as water-dropping helicopters and firefighters swarmed the area to battle the flames.

Live aerial video footage broadcast by KABC-TV showed tall flames raging along a ridge-line at the edge of a neighborhood, burning perilously close to several homes as authorities urged residents to flee.

Los Angeles Fire Department spokesman Brian Humphrey said on the broadcast that winds were relatively light, giving firefighting teams at least one advantage, because there was less chance of burning embers being spread ahead of the flames.

Large, repeated water drops from firefighting helicopters appeared to be keeping the fire mostly at bay from the neighborhood. No injuries were reported.

Residents who had been trying to help douse the blaze with garden hoses from their backyards were seen scrambling for cover at one point when a large clump of vegetation burst into heavy flames.

The blaze in Pacific Palisades, located between Santa Monica and Malibu about 18 miles (29 km) west of downtown Los Angeles, came about two weeks after a major wind-driven wildfire scorched nearly 8,000 acres along the northern edge of Los Angeles, damaging or destroying dozens of structures and prompting evacuations of some 23,000 homes.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Culver City, Calif.; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

California Earthquakes, many aftershocks jolt the San Fransisco area this week

The San Andreas Fault line. By Kate Barton, David Howell, and Joe Vigil -

By Kami Klein

A series of earthquakes have been hitting California in the last few days.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the quakes began Monday at 10:33 p.m., when a magnitude 4.5 temblor rattled out of the suburbs of Contra Costa County, in the East Bay about 20 miles northeast of San Francisco. The USGS reported at least 26 aftershocks following the tremor, Then, on Tuesday at 12:42 p.m., a magnitude 4.7 quake struck in the remote mountains of San Benito County. No major structural damage was reported.

On Tuesday evening another earthquake this one rated at 3.4 also struck the Pleasant Hill area. The quake was recorded at 7:11 p.m. pacific, Tuesday, Oct. 15 and was centered under Pleasant Hill at a depth of 9 miles, the USGS reported.

Monday’s quake was the latest reminder that seismic forces put the East Bay at high risk of a major earthquake, including from the dangerous Hayward Fault, which runs along heavily populated areas. The Los Angeles Times also reported that the earthquakes struck on an unusual section of San Andreas fault known for ‘creeping’, a series of smaller earthquakes that could lead to larger ones along the fault line.

“This is the 10th earthquake larger than magnitude 4 in the last 20 years in this area” within a radius of about six miles from Tuesday’s epicenter said Keith Knudsen, USGS geologist and deputy director of the agency’s Earthquake Science Center.

In 2008 the USGS created “The Great ShakeOut” scenario to warn communities to prepare the bay area for larger quakes. This scenario was based on a potential magnitude 7.8 earthquake on the southern San Andreas Fault— approximately 5,000 times larger than the magnitude 5.4 earthquake that shook southern California on July 29, 2008. It’s not a matter of if an earthquake of this size will happen—but when.

Dr. Lucy Jones of the U.S. Geological Survey led a group of over 300 scientists, engineers, and others to study the likely consequences of this potential earthquake in great detail. The result is the ShakeOut Earthquake Scenario, which was also the basis of a statewide emergency response exercise, Golden Guardian 2008.

In an earthquake of this size, the shaking will last for nearly two minutes. The strongest shaking will occur near the fault (in the projected earthquake, the Coachella Valley, Inland Empire and Antelope Valley). Pockets of strong shaking will form away from the fault where sediments trap the waves (in the projected earthquake, it would occur in the San Gabriel Valley and in East Los Angeles).
Such an earthquake will cause unprecedented damage to Southern California—greatly dwarfing the massive damage that occurred in Northridge’s 6.7-magnitude earthquake in 1994. In summary, the ShakeOut Scenario estimates this earthquake will cause over 1,800 deaths, 50,000 injuries, $200 billion in damage and other losses, and severe, long-lasting disruption.

Deadly Los Angeles wildfire burns with subdued fury after change in weather

By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Firefighters have tightened their grip on a deadly Los Angeles wildfire burning with subdued fury on Sunday after extremely dry desert winds that had stoked the flames gave way to moister, gentler breezes blowing in from the Pacific.

The so-called Saddleridge fire, which erupted Thursday night and raced across the northern edge of L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, had scorched nearly 8,000 acres (3,237 hectares) by Sunday but was mostly confined to foothills and canyons away from populated areas, fire officials said.

As of Sunday morning, firefighters had managed to carve containment lines around 41% of the fire’s perimeter, more than double the containment level reported a day earlier as authorities lifted all remaining evacuation notices.

At the height of the blaze on Friday, authorities had ordered the evacuation of some 23,000 homes, comprising about 100,000 people, as flames invaded several communities in northern Los Angeles.

One man who stayed put in an effort to defend his own property from the flames suffered a fatal heart attack, and three firefighters out of some 1,000 assigned to the blaze sustained minor injuries, authorities said.

Thirty-two homes and other structures were destroyed or damaged.

The last two of several emergency evacuation shelters set up during the blaze were closed on Sunday, the American Red Cross said.

A shift in wind patterns was a key factor in the improved fire outlook over the weekend.

Initially stoked by gale-force Santa Ana winds blowing in from the desert east of the city, the blaze had raced through dry brush and chaparral at the rate of 800 acres per hour at the outset.

On Saturday, however, lighter winds laden with greater moisture began blowing in from the ocean, helping fire crews to halt advancing flames and extend containment lines, city fire spokesman Nicholas Prange said.

“With the winds being reduced, fire behavior is less severe, so firefighters are advancing around the perimeter,” he told Reuters by phone. “We can make more headway with containment than before.”

Smoke from the blaze lingered over much of Los Angeles, leading the South Coast Air Quality Management District to issue an advisory for unhealthy air quality for the San Fernando Valley, as well as the Santa Clarita Valley to the west and the San Gabriel Mountains to the north.

The cause of the blaze was under investigation. Fire officials said they were investigating witness reports in local media linking the fire to a power transmission line.

The Saddleridge was the largest among a spate of wildfires across California that burned a total of nearly 160,000 acres (64,000 hectares) and destroyed 134 structures in recent days, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

A separate, smaller fire east of Los Angeles in Riverside County killed two people and destroyed dozens of homes last week. That blaze began when burning refuse dumped by a garbage truck ignited dry vegetation on the ground.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Additional reporting by Daniel Trotta in New York; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Daniel Wallis)

Wind-driven Los Angeles wildfire leaves one dead, forces 100,000 to flee

 

By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – A fierce, wind-driven wildfire swept through foothills and canyons along the northern edge of Los Angeles on Friday, engulfing homes, closing roads and devouring acre upon acre of dry brush and chaparral as 100,000 residents were forced to flee.

At least one death was attributed to the fire, a man who authorities said suffered a heart attack while trying to battle encroaching flames.

The blaze, dubbed the Saddleridge fire, had charred more than 4,700 acres by Friday morning, 12 hours after it ignited and then grew quickly into the largest and most ferocious among a spate of wildfires across Southern California.

As water-dropping helicopters and airplane tankers carrying fire retardant fought the flames from the air, ground crews battled the blaze at close range with hand tools and bulldozers, while firefighters lugging hoses from house to house scrambled to protect threatened neighborhoods.

One community at greatest risk was Porter Ranch, which lies adjacent to the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage field where a wellhead rupture caused a massive methane leak in 2015. U.S. Representative Brad Sherman, who lives in Porter Ranch, told Reuters he was among residents who fled as flames approached.

“I left a bit earlier than most because I was watching the news, and the moment they posted on the internet that I was in the mandatory evacuation area, I was out,” Sherman said by mobile phone as he walked back toward his home.

“It’s smoke from miles away from my home, a lot of smoke. I don’t see any flames. I see helicopter drops,” he added.

The conflagration was stoked by strong, dry Santa Ana winds blowing into the Los Angeles area from desert areas separated from the city by mountains to the east. The winds were moving the flames at a rate of 800 acres per hour, Los Angeles Fire Department officials said at a morning news conference.

“This is a very dynamic fire,” Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas told reporters, as he urged residents in harm’s way to heed evacuation orders. “Do not wait to leave.”

Los Angeles County Fire Captain Tony Imbrenda told local radio station KPCC that high winds also were making it more difficult to effectively fight the flames from the air, causing dissipation of water and fire-retardant drops before they could hit the ground.

Similarly strong winds in northern and central California prompted utility giant Pacific Gas & Electric to impose a precautionary shutoff of power to hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses to reduce the risk of wildfires. Governor Gavin Newsom said on Thursday the unprecedented measure faulted the utility for what he called years of mismanagement.

At daybreak, the Saddleridge fire was still completely uncontained and its cause was under investigation.

Some 23,000 homes and around 100,000 residents were under mandatory evacuation orders that were expected to remain in effect for at least a few days, fire officials said. A number of emergency shelters quickly filled to capacity, as evacuees wondered whether their homes were still standing.

“They don’t know what’s going on. They’ve been evacuated, and that’s all they know,” Michelle Gross, the director of a Red Cross shelter set up at the Granada Hills Recreation Center, said when reached by phone.

The fire prompted several freeway closures in the northern part of L.A.’s San Fernando Valley. At least 25 homes in two neighborhoods were destroyed early on Friday, authorities said.

About 70 miles to the east, authorities also fought to gain an upper hand on the Sandalwood Fire in Riverside County, which had scorched about 830 acres and destroyed 76 homes and other structures by Friday around the town of Calimesa.

One fatality was reported, along with two people who were unaccounted for. The blaze was just 10% contained, Riverside County Fire Department (RCFD) officials said.

The Sandalwood fire erupted on Thursday afternoon when a garbage truck dumped burning trash that spread onto vegetation, the RCFD and California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) said in a statement.

POWER CUTS

Much of Northern California, from San Francisco to the Oregon border, remained under a statewide “red flag” fire alert for heightened fire danger on Friday.

Firefighters have been able to quickly contain most of the other blazes around the state.

By late Thursday, PG&E announced it had restored power to more than half of its customers whose power was turned off, and that 312,000 remained without electricity.

More than 250,000 California households and businesses were without power on Friday morning, PowerOutage.US reported, nearly all of them PG&E customers in northern California.

PG&E filed for bankruptcy in January 2019, citing potential civil liabilities in excess of $30 billion from major wildfires linked to its transmission wires and other equipment.

As winds moved south Friday, a power cutoff similar to PG&E’s was underway at Southern California Edison, which warned more than 173,000 customers they could face outages.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter, Rich McKay, Andrew Hay, Dan Whitcomb; Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis and Andrew Hay; Writing by Frank McGurty; Editing by Pravin Char, Nick Zieminski and Tom Brown)

California governor says broad power shutdown to prevent fires ‘unacceptable’

By Alex Dobuzinskis and Andrew Hay

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – California Governor Gavin Newsom called a widespread electricity shutdown triggered by a power company to prevent wildfires “unacceptable”, as gale-force winds and dry weather posed a critical fire threat to the north of the state.

Pacific Gas and Electric Co (PG&E) has imposed unprecedented shut-offs that left more than 730,000 homes and workplaces in northern California without power on the second day of planned outages.

But as of late Thursday, power was restored to more than half of those who had lost it, PG&E officials said in a release. About 312,000 electric customers remained without power as of 10 p.m. officials said.

Some of the state’s most devastating wildfires were sparked in recent years by damage to electrical transmission lines from high winds, with flames then spreading through tinder-dry vegetation to populated areas.

Newsom, a Democrat, told a news conference on Thursday he did not fault the utility for shutting off electricity as a safety measure, but he described the outage as too broad and said it resulted from years of mismanagement by the utility.

“We’re seeing a scale and scope of something that no state in the 21st century should experience,” Newsom said. “What’s happened is unacceptable and it’s happened because of neglect.”

The remarks were the most pointed comments Newsom has directed at PG&E since the outages began early on Wednesday. Among the questions he raised was whether the utility was too large, with a service area covering more than 40 counties.

He also faulted PG&E for putting what he called “greed” ahead of investments in its infrastructure to protect the electrical grid from dangerous winds.

PG&E filed for bankruptcy in January 2019, citing potential civil liabilities in excess of $30 billion from major wildfires linked to its transmission wires and other equipment.

PG&E Chief Executive Bill Johnson acknowledged that his company had left “millions of people” without a “fundamental service” they expect and deserve.

“This is not how we want to serve you,” he told a media briefing in San Francisco, adding that PG&E “was not adequately prepared” for such a large power outage.

‘THIRD WORLD COUNTRY’

As high winds moved south, a similar cut-off was under way by neighboring utility Southern California Edison, which warned that more than 173,000 customers could lose power in parts of eight counties, including Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Ventura.

Residents, business owners and even public officials expressed frustration about the blackouts, which the utility began on a much smaller scale last year during times of high fire risk.

“Northern California is not a Third World country,” the San Jose Mercury Statesman said in an editorial. “It’s unacceptable that the region is being forced to endure this level of disruption as the long-term strategy for dealing with the threat of wildfires.”

PG&E, California’s biggest investor-owned utility, said power would be restored to areas once up to 77 mph (124 kph) winds die down and 2,500 miles (4,025 km) of transmission lines could be inspected.

“We faced a choice between hardship or safety, and we chose safety,” Michael Lewis, PG&E’s senior vice president of electric operations, said in a statement.

ECONOMIC COST

The National Weather Service said the hot gusty winds that usually hit northern California in October, sometimes called the “Diablo Winds”, would continue into Friday morning.

Much of northern California, from San Francisco to the Oregon border, remains under a state “red flag” fire alert, although no major blazes have been reported.

“As soon as the weather passes, PG&E will begin safety inspections with 6,300 field personnel and 45 helicopters standing at the ready once we get the all clear,” the utility said in a tweet on Thursday.

Oakland supermarkets brought in refrigeration trucks to save food.

Michael Wara of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment estimated the economic cost of the shutdown could reach $2.5 billion, with small businesses hit hardest as they typically lacked back-up generators.

In Santa Rosa, a California wine country town where entire subdivisions were destroyed by a deadly 2017 wildfire, restaurateurs Mark and Terri Stark said they had to close one of their six restaurants after it lost power.

“This is preventative medicine and medicine sometimes is not good to take,” said Mark Stark, 60, who lost one restaurant in the 2017 blaze. The fires in that region killed 46 people.

“Those fires and what they caused are still very real for people in our ‘hood,” he said.

(Reporting By Andrew Hay in TAOS, N.M. and Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angleles; additional reporting by Scott Disavino in New York and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Bill Tarrant, Cynthia Osterman, Tom Hogue and Richard Pullin)

Pair of California wildfires destroy homes near Los Angeles

(Reuters) – A pair of wildfires have destroyed dozens of homes near Los Angeles and forced thousands of residents to evacuate, fire officials and local media reported on Friday, days after power cuts were ordered across the state to prevent fires.

In the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles, the so-called Saddleridge fire had spread to more than 4,000 acres by early Friday morning and was completely uncontained, the Los Angeles Fire Department said. More than 12,500 homes and some 100,000 residents were under mandatory evacuation orders on Friday morning, local TV station ABC 7 reported.

“Once daylight comes, a more accurate assessment can be performed,” the Los Angeles Fire Department said in a pre-dawn Twitter message. “A number of homes have been destroyed by fire but the estimated number is not available at this time.”

Authorities were also fighting overnight to contain the Sandalwood Fire in Riverside County, which had scorched about 500 acres near Calimesa, about 70 miles east of downtown Los Angeles by early Friday. It was only 10 percent contained as of early Friday, Riverside County Fire Department (RCFD) officials said.

There were no immediate reports of deaths or injuries from the latest blazes, among about 275 wildfires that have broken out across California as hot, gusty winds signaled the start of its peak fire season, state officials said.

It comes a year after the deadliest and most destructive ever seasons recorded in California, with about 100 residents and firefighters killed in 2018. More than 8,500 wildfires erupted last year, scorching more than 1.8 million acres and causing billions of dollars of damage.

In the San Fernando Valley, heavy winds fanned the fast-moving Saddleridge Fire, which hopped major roads as it raced west toward Ventura County and the Aliso Canyon natural gas facility in Porter Ranch, the site of an enormous gas leak in 2015.

The blaze was threatening homes in Sylmar and Porter Ranch, two neighborhoods on the northwest outskirts of Los Angeles, where authorities called in bulldozers, helicopters and other heavy equipment to battle the blaze.

It had set several homes and power lines ablaze and prompted the California Highway Patrol to shut down portions of several highways.

The Sandlewood blaze, named after a local landmark, erupted on Thursday afternoon when a garbage truck dumped burning trash that spread onto vegetation, the RCFD and California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, said in a statement.

POWER CUTS

Firefighters have been able to quickly contain most of the other blazes that erupted across California.

The risk to life and property prompted Pacific Gas and Electric Co cut power to about 730,000 customers, a move that California Governor Gavin Newsom blamed on years of mismanagement by the utility.

By late Thursday, PG&E announced it had restored power to more than half of those affected, and about 312,000 remained without electricity.

PG&E filed for bankruptcy in January 2019, citing potential civil liabilities in excess of $30 billion from major wildfires linked to its transmission wires and other equipment.

As winds moved south, a similar cutoff was under way by Southern California Edison, which warned more than 173,000 customers that they could lose power.

Much of northern California, from San Francisco to the Oregon border, remains under a state “red flag” fire alert.

The National Weather Service said the hot gusty winds that usually hit northern California in October, sometimes called the “Diablo Winds,” would persist through Friday.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter, Rich McKay, Dan Whitcomb; Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Writing by Frank McGurty; Editing by Pravin Char and Nick Zieminski)

Power cut to millions as California faces heightened wildfire risks

Power cut to millions as California faces heightened wildfire risks
By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Electricity was shut off to nearly 750,000 California homes and workplaces on Wednesday as Pacific Gas and Electric Co (PG&E) imposed a string of planned power outages of unprecedented scale to reduce wildfire risks posed by extremely windy, dry weather.

The power cut knocked out traffic signals, forced school closures and shut businesses and government offices across northern and central California, said Brian Ferguson, a spokesman for the state Office of Emergency Services.

One key disruption was at the University of California at Berkeley, which canceled classes on Wednesday during the first phase of the “public safety power shutoff”, targeting more than 500,000 homes and businesses.

A second phase began at 3 p.m. Pacific time and extended the blackout to 234,000 more customers, said the utility, which was considering a third phase for 4,600 more dwellings and businesses.

Although PG&E said changing weather conditions and work-arounds had restored power to about 44,000 customers, its action was the largest precautionary electricity shutoff undertaken by California’s biggest investor-owned utility.

“It’s too bad that it is such a large area to be turned off,” said Matthew Gallagher, a resident of Vacaville, a town 60 miles (100 km) northeast of San Francisco, where everything, from the Walmart outlet to gasoline service stations, was closed for lack of power.

A similar cutoff was under consideration by neighboring utility Southern California Edison for nearly 174,000 of its customers, about 50,000 of them in Los Angeles County, should severe winds hit southern California on Thursday as forecast, SoCal Edison spokeswoman Taelor Bakewell said.

Some of California’s most devastating wildfires were sparked in recent years by damage to electrical transmission lines from recurring bouts of high winds that then spread the flames through tinder-dry vegetation into populated areas.

“We are entering into a two-, three- or four-day period of extreme fire danger in California,” Governor Gavin Newsom said at an event in San Diego on Wednesday.

‘RED FLAG’

Gale-force wind gusts, mostly in higher elevations, were expected to intensify late on Wednesday across northern and central California before gradually migrating into southern California overnight and Thursday, National Weather Service meteorologist Steve Anderson said. He said extremely low humidity levels added to the fire threat.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) said “red-flag” warnings were posted across the state for what was shaping up to be the strongest wind event so far this season.

PG&E warned residents to prepare for outages that could last several days. But spokeswoman Kristi Jourdan said it expected to restore supply to most customers within 24 to 48 hours after high winds abate, once power lines were inspected and any damage repaired.

Many customers live in areas where breezes were light on Wednesday, but some are served by transmission lines hit by high winds elsewhere and thus were part of a larger portion of the grid that was turned off, PG&E spokesman Jeff Smith said.

It urged customers to stock up on flashlights, fresh batteries, first-aid supplies and cash, and plan for healthcare needs, from refrigerated medicine to electrical devices.

The utility said it opened 28 community centers across the planned outage zone to provide restrooms, bottled water, battery charging and air-conditioned seating during the day.

PG&E has drawn increased scrutiny in recent years over maintenance of transmission wires and other equipment implicated in major wildfires.

In May, state fire investigators determined that PG&E transmission lines caused the deadliest and most destructive wildfire on record in California, last year’s wind-driven Camp Fire that killed 85 people in and around the town of Paradise.

Cal Fire likewise concluded that PG&E power lines had sparked a 2017 flurry of wildfires that swept California’s wine country north of San Francisco Bay.

PG&E filed for bankruptcy in January 2019, citing potential civil liabilities in excess of $30 billion from the fires.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Additional reporting by Jim Christie in San Francisco, Rich McKay in Atlanta and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Paul Tait and Clarence Fernandez)

California power cutoff begin as wildfire risks rise

California power cutoff begin as wildfire risks rise
By Steve Gorman

(Reuters) – Hundreds of thousands of California homes and businesses started to lose electric power early Wednesday as part of an unprecedented effort by Pacific Gas and Electric Co. to prevent wildfires, the utility said.

Nearly 800,000 northern and central California homes and businesses can expect to lose electricity for up to several days, starting on Wednesday, PG&E said.

State investigators determined in May that PG&E transmission lines had caused last year’s Camp Fire. That fire killed 85 people, making it the deadliest in California’s history.

The company had already filed for bankruptcy protection by then, citing potential liabilities of more than $30 billion from the Camp Fire and the 2017 North Bay Fires.

Conditions before the fires were about the same then as they are now in the region. Gale-force winds are expected to last through midday Thursday, with gusts up to 70 miles per hour, PG&E said. Humidity is low, leaving the air extremely dry.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) said “red-flag” warnings were posted across the entire state for what was shaping up to be the strongest wind so far this season.

Consequently, PG&E said on Tuesday it was extending a previously announced “public safety power shutoff” to 34 counties, more than half of all the counties in California. It’s the largest such precautionary outage the utility has undertaken to date.

Once power is turned off, it cannot be restored until the winds subside, allowing the utility to inspect equipment for damage and make any repairs, PG&E said.

The first phase of the outages, affecting about 513,000 customers in northern California, began after midnight, PG&E said in an early morning release. Depending on the weather, additional outages will continue at noon, the company said.

“We’re telling customers to be prepared for an outage that could last several days,” PG&E spokeswoman Tamar Sarkissian told Reuters.

SOME OBJECT

Some consumer advocates have objected to the precautionary disruptions, saying they can harm people who need electricity for medical equipment.

But PG&E promised to open community centers in 30 locations across the planned outage zone to furnish restrooms, bottled water, battery charging and air-conditioned seating during daytime hours.

Sarkissian said PG&E had placed 45 helicopter crews and 700 extra ground personnel on standby for inspections and repairs once the wind dies down. Some equipment locations will require workers to hike into remote or mountainous areas, she said.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; additional reporting Jim Christie in San Francisco and Rich McKay in Atlanta; editing by Larry King)