Record California blackouts loom amid 'historic' fire dangers

Record, planned power outages that could affect more than 2 million people in California were set to begin Saturday afternoon with what the state's largest utility called a "historic wind event" posing extreme fire danger.

Mandatory evacuation orders meanwhile grew in Northern California on Saturday in the face of an ongoing blaze in wine country. One death, in Southern California, has been connected to statewide blazes blamed on the fire weather.

The now-25,000-acre Kincade Fire in Sonoma County continued to roar with only 10 percent containment, prompting an expansion of evacuation orders that now cover at least 50,000 residents. Fire officials said 49 structures have been destroyed so far.

Northern California was expected on Saturday night to experience a second wave of fire weather, composed of warm, dry winds that rush down mountain ranges toward the sea.

"Wind storm" is a fair descriptor of the fire weather, said a spokesperson for utility giant PG&E and a National Weather Service meteorologist.

Offshore gusts of up to 90 miles per hour, which would be hurricane-level, were possible in the North Bay mountains, the meteorologist, Steve Anderson said.

He also expressed alarm at the expected duration of the event — more than 24 hours.

"The winds will be extremely high in the fire zones," he said. "It's a very long-duration event.

Pacific Gas & Electric, the state's largest utility, said in a statement Saturday that "a historic wind event" is prompting it to expand precautionary outages by nearly 100,000 customers to 940,000, the highest number ever impacted by such pre-emptive blackouts, spokeswoman Tamar Sarkissian said.

She said the utility doesn't track average customers per account but, using common metrics, the phased outages, scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. Saturday, could affect well over 2 million people.

That number of people in the dark is likely to outnumber the previous record, when fire weather prompted PG&E to cut power to 738,000 customers on Oct. 10, she said.

The week's fire weather impacted the entire state and even Baja California, south of the U.S. border, but Southern California was expected this weekend to see onshore winds, higher humidity, temperatures that are 10 degrees cooler, and a return to a cool marine layer of clouds, said National Weather Service meteorologist Keily Delerme.

Southern California's largest blaze, the 4,600-acre Tick fire in northern Los Angeles County, was 25 percent contained Saturday, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Los Angeles Sheriff's Department officials said human remains were found Saturday in the fire's burn zone in the city of Santa Clarita. Further details such as cause, identity, age and gender were not yet known, according to a sheriff's statement.

Fire weather could return to Southern California late Sunday and then again Wednesday through Friday, the National Weather Service said.

The planned power outages have been slammed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, who said Friday that PG&E has failed over the years to take steps to guard against its power lines sparking wildfires.

Newsom said the utility has shown "a lack of intentionality and focus on hardening their grid, undergrounding their transmission lines. They simply did not do their job."

PG&E began the preventative outages June 7 as a response to its alleged culpability in past blazes, including the deadliest wildfire in state history, last year's Camp Fire, which state fire officials said was sparked by PG&E transmission lines.

On Friday, PG&E CEO Bill Johnson acknowledged that the origin of the ongoing Kincade fire in Sonoma County was near one of the utility's transmission towers, which malfunctioned around the same time the blaze started.

He said there was "a broken jumper on one of our transmission towers" but that state investigators have not yet determined the fire's cause.

The tower was not part of the last round of pre-emptive power outages, Johnson said.

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