A fire truck at the Dixie fire.
Personnel from several Santa Cruz County agencies, including the Central Fire District of Santa Cruz County, have been fighting the Dixie fire.
(Via Central Fire District of Santa Cruz County)
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PG&E starts planned power shutoffs to 51,000 customers as Dixie fire rampages

Roughly 48,000 customers in Northern California could lose power Tuesday night, the utility said, as forecasts called for fierce winds of up to 50 mph that could topple trees into energized power lines were forecast.

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 could cut power to 48,000 residents across 18 counties in Northern California — Santa Cruz County is not among them — 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 for the Dixie fire burn area is in effect through 8 p.m. Wednesday, according to the National Weather Service’s office in Sacramento. 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.

Different areas will have their power turned off at different times if the shutoffs occur. The timing will be tailored to when high winds move into a particular location, Contreras said. Utility officials aim to restore power 24 hours after the weather clears, she added. Sometimes that equates to 12 daylight hours because lines are patrolled by helicopters.

Shutoffs are not unprecedented. The utility in January cut power for roughly 5,100 people in seven counties. There were six shutoffs initiated last year.

PG&E has said its equipment might have sparked the massive Dixie fire, which broke out July 13 near where a tree fell into a power line. The utility’s equipment might 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 the communities of Susanville and Janesville along the eastern edge of the blaze, fire officials said.

Spot fires ignited near Janesville from late Monday afternoon through the early evening, forcing new mandatory evacuations in the area.

“The fire took off, gained momentum, [exhibiting] erratic fire behavior, extreme fire behavior,” said Mark Brunton, operations section chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s Incident Management Team 3.

Fire crews were able to herd the fire around much of the community, but some structures along the Highway 395 corridor were destroyed, he said during a morning update.

At some point, the blaze leapt over the highway and ignited a roughly 10-acre blaze on the eastern side.

The fire made a six-mile run in one day, authorities said.

“We’re in a situation where we know that wherever it spots, it’s going to start a new fire,” said Mark Beveridge, a spokesperson for the Dixie fire.

Flames also crept around the burn scar of last year’s Sheep fire and pushed toward Susanville, about 11 miles north of Janesville. Residents were told to be ready to leave at any moment. The area remained under imminent threat Tuesday.

“It’s not out of play,” Brunton said, adding that “the next 24 hours is going to be crucial to watch as to what the fire is going to do there.”

Heavier winds projected forTuesday could send flames back toward Janesville and Susanville.

Although the cause of the Dixie fire remains under review, prosecutors in at least two counties are investigating PG&E for potential criminal charges, saying it should have been aware of the high risk of fire in the canyon. It is the same canyon where PG&E equipment ignited the 2018 Camp fire. In that blaze, the utility pleaded guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter after the town of Paradise was decimated.

Recent court filings show the utility might have played a role in dozens of additional fires.

The utility’s equipment is suspected of igniting at least 62 small fires this season, the utility disclosed in federal court Monday.

The fires, for which PG&E did not provide locations, ranged in size from less than 3 meters to 99 acres and took place between May 10 and July 31 in areas deemed high-fire threat districts, PG&E said in the filing.

One fire, reported June 29, burned 100 to 299 acres, but the majority were a quarter-acre or less, the utility said. No deaths were reported in connection with any of the fires.

The most destructive, which is suspected to have resulted from a bird striking equipment and burned less than 3 meters June 16, destroyed a single structure, the utility said.

Vegetation contact is suspected to have accounted for the majority of the fires — 29 — followed by equipment failure, which is being eyed in 15 fires, the utility said. Other potential causes included contact with a third party, bird or animal and overloaded equipment. The cause of three of the fires remains under investigation, and one is unknown, the utility said.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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