SAN FRANCISCO – Pacific Gas & Electric warned Friday it might turn off electricity to thousands of customers in Northern California this weekend to reduce the risk of wildfires like the one sparked by power lines last year that killed 85 people and wiped out nearly 15,000 homes in Paradise.
The warning came as forecasters issued the year’s first red flag warning of high fire danger in portions of the Central Valley and areas north of San Francisco starting early Saturday.
The National Weather Service said strong winds, low humidity and warm temperatures could raise the risk of wildfires.
The nation’s largest utility said it might shut off electricity in several counties in the North Bay and Sierra Nevada foothills, areas where the state’s most devastating wildfires occurred the past two years.
“We know how much our customers rely on electric service and would only consider temporarily turning off power in the interest of safety during extreme weather conditions,” Michael Lewis, PG&E’s senior vice president of electric operations, said in a statement.
After PG&E power lines and equipment were blamed for previous fires, the utility has been under enormous pressure to avoid another deadly blaze.
Facing lawsuits from insurance companies and wildfire victims, the company filed for bankruptcy protection and replaced many of its top leaders.
The utility said it considers several factors when determining if power should be turned off for safety. They include periods of excessive winds and low humidity when vegetation is dried out and can easily ignite.
State fire officials said grass and shrub in the valley and foothills have dried despite an unusually rainy spring.
“The moisture stayed with us through May, but it dries out quickly due to our Mediterranean climate,” said Scott McLean, a spokesman with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
The warning is in effect until 5 p.m. Sunday.
Once power is shut off, PG&E said its crews will inspect every de-energized line before they restore power, a process that can keep the lights out for days even after conditions improve.
The precautionary outages could inconvenience hundreds of thousands of customers while endangering some who depend on electricity.
Last week, state regulators approved allowing utilities to cut off electricity when fire risk is extremely high. The California Public Utilities Commission said utilities must do a better job educating and notifying the public, particularly those with disabilities and others who are vulnerable, and ramp up preventive efforts, such as clearing brush and installing fire-resistant poles.