Oct. 9 (UPI) — Pacific Gas & Electric, California’s largest utility, said Wednesday it will begin to shut off electricity to portions of 34 different counties statewide — affecting more than 2 million people — due to calculated wildfire concerns.

The shutoff began after midnight Tuesday to hundreds of thousands of PG&E homes and businesses, as parts of California are forecast to face strong wind gusts this week, the utility said.

“The Public Safety Power Shutoff will occur in three phases, with the first phase impacting approximately 513,000 customers,” the utility said early Wednesday.

The second phase, impacting about 235,000 customers, was set for central and northern parts of the state at about noon Wednesday. The third, to impact 42,000 homes in the utility’s southernmost areas, will occur at an undetermined time.

“The safety of our customers and the communities we serve is our most important responsibility, which is why PG&E has decided to turn power off to customers during this widespread, severe wind event,” said Michael Lewis, PG&E’s senior vice president of Electric Operations. “We understand the effects this event will have on our customers and appreciate the public’s patience as we do what is necessary to keep our communities safe and reduce the risk of wildfire.”

More than 2 million people from as many as 900,000 PG&E-served homes and businesses were expected be affected by the staged blackouts. The size of the area affected, more than 30 counties, is unprecedented.

The purpose of the shutoff is to prevent its power lines and other equipment from igniting wildfires. Fire officials determined in May that PG&E equipment caused the Camp Fire last November, which became the most destructive forest fire in the state’s history and killed 85 people. It also burned nearly 14,000 homes and razed more than 150,000 acres of land.

Sumeet Singh, vice president of PG&E’s Community Wildlife Safety Program, said during a media conference in San Francisco that residents throughout portions of 34 northern, central and coastal counties would lose power during the shutoff Wednesday.

Singh added that peak winds are expected to start early Wednesday and continue into Thursday.

Sonoma County issued a Red Flag Warning that advised residents PG&E would conduct an “imminent power shutoff.”

“You may lose power starting at midnight tonight,” the statement said. “A prolonged outage may reduce our ability to warn you in the event of an emergency. Remain aware of your surroundings and be prepared to evacuate if you feel in danger.”

Sonoma County’s Superintendent told the Los Angeles Times the planned outages are a “blunt” approach, but “there’s an understanding of why it’s being undertaken.”

PG&E said communities not forecast to receive extreme weather may also have their power cut, as the vast electric system relies on power lines that work together.

“The safety of our customers and the communities we serve is our most important responsibility, which is why PG&E has decided to turn power off to customers during this widespread, severe wind event,” PG&E Sr. Vice President of Electric Operations Michael Lewis said in a statement. “We understand the effects this event will have on our customers and appreciate the public’s patience as we do what is necessary to keep our communities safe and reduce the risk of wildfire.”

While the company has received much criticism from the public over its third power shut off in the last two months, Gov. Gavin Newsom defended the company and said the shutoff was in the public interest.

“The reality is that we want to protect people,” he said in Oakland Tuesday at a bill signing event. “We want to make sure people are safe. This is what PG&E thinks is in the best interest of their customers and ultimately for this region and the state.”



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