Pacific Gas & Electric Co. expanded the number of customers who could lose power in a planned shutoff Tuesday evening as the Dixie fire exploded past 600,000 acres overnight and sent more people fleeing from their homes.
The utility said Monday night that it may cut power to 48,000 residents across 18 counties in Northern California as it monitors forecasted fierce winds that threaten to knock trees and other debris into energized power lines and spark new fires. Preemptively cutting power is intended to reduce the risk of that happening.
“It’s a decision of last resort for us; it’s to prevent a catastrophic wildfire,” said Deanna Contreras, a public information officer for PG&E. Winds, she said, are expected to gust up to 40 mph, with localized gusts up to a furious 50 mph.
A final determination will be made several hours before the de-energization, likely Tuesday afternoon and possibly earlier, Contreras said.
A red flag warning signaling critical fire weather will go into effect 1 p.m. Tuesday for the Dixie fire burn area and is slated to last through 8 p.m. Wednesday. Low humidity, warm temperatures and historically dry vegetation have plagued the region for weeks, fueling rapid fire growth and fire behavior that’s baffled seasoned personnel.
On Sunday, the utility estimated that 39,000 customers in 16 counties could face shutoffs.
“The scope will continuously change as with any weather event” as more detailed weather information arrives closer to the event, Contreras said.
Most of the customers who could lose power — approximately 31,000 — are in Butte and Shasta counties, the utility said in a news release.
However, residents in small portions of 16 other counties — Colusa, Glenn, Humboldt, Lake, Lassen, Mendocino, Napa, Nevada, Plumas, Sierra, Solano, Sonoma, Tehama, Trinity, Yolo and Yuba — also have been alerted to potential shutoffs.
Utility officials aim to restore power 24 hours after the weather clears, Contreras said. Sometimes that equates to 12 daylight hours because lines are patrolled by helicopters.
PG&E has said its equipment may have sparked the massive Dixie fire, which broke out July 13 near where a tree fell into a power line. The utility’s equipment may also have ignited the Fly fire, a blaze that eventually merged with Dixie.
As of Tuesday morning, the Dixie fire had swelled to 604,511 acres and was only 31% contained.
Strong southwest winds sent flames hurtling northeast Monday, threatening several communities along the eastern edge of the blaze, fire officials said.
Spot fires ignited near the community of Janesville from late Monday afternoon through the early evening, forcing new mandatory evacuations in the area.
Resources stationed in the area surged as “the fire took off, gained momentum, [exhibiting] erratic fire behavior, extreme fire behavior,” said Mark Brunton, operations section chief for California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Incident Management Team 3.
Personnel were able to herd the fire around much of the community, but some structures along the Highway 395 corridor were destroyed in the process, he said.
At some point, the blaze leapt over the highway and ignited a roughly 10-acre blaze on the eastern side.
All told, the fire made a six-mile run, said Mark Beveridge, a spokesperson for the Dixie fire. It “very aggressively had a wind on it,” he said.
“The temperature was up, humidity was down,” Beveridge said. “So at that point we’re in a situation where we know that wherever it spots, it’s going to start a new fire.”
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