Pacific Gas and Electric Company announced Saturday it will shut off power for 940,000 customers in Northern California in an effort to prevent more wildfires sparked by its electric lines.
The outage will affect 36 counties and is about 90,000 more than the utility's original plans. The company serves 5.4 million electric customers in a 70,000-square mile area in Northern and South California from Eureka to Bakersfield.
"This wind event is forecast to be the most serious weather situation that Northern and Central California has experienced in recent memory," Michael Lewis, PG&E's senior vice president of Electric Operations, said in a briefing. "We understand the widespread impacts this Public Safety Power Shutoff will have across Northern and Central California."
The outages are an attempt protect dry landscapes from overheating power lines.
In the past several years, utility equipment has been blamed for California's most destructive wildfires.
"We would only take this decision for one reason - to help reduce catastrophic wildfire risk to our customers and communities," Lewis said. "There is no compromising the safety of our customers, which is our most important responsibility."
The National Weather Service is forecasting strong offshore winds in mountain regions of Northern and Central California from Saturday night until Monday morning.
Not only do the winds trigger fires but make it tough and dangers for firefighters to control them.
Wildfire activity in California has surged since Wednesday, from the massive Kincade Fire in Sonoma County to the Tick Fire in Los Angeles County. As fire departments fight back the raging infernos, tens of thousands of people remain under evacuation orders for the second blaze-illuminated night.
"This is the largest evacuation that we've had in Santa Clarita," Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger said in a news conference.
An estimated 50,000 residents were evacuated by Thursday evening, the Los Angeles County Fire Department reported.
The Tick Fire started on Thursday afternoon, exploding from 200 acres to 800 acres in less than an hour. By Saturday night, it had grown to 4,615 acres with 10 percent containment, according to the Cal Fire.
"Last night we had the wind pick up and it burned an additional 700 to 800 acres. It breached the 14 Freeway between Sand Canyon and Agua Dulce," Incident Commander for the Tick Fire Deputy Fire Chief Vince Pena said in a press conference on Friday afternoon.
Pena reported that 575 firefighters are assigned to the incident with additional resources available.
As of Saturday night, the Kincade Fire had grown to about 25,000 acres and was only 10 percent contained, according to Cal Fire. Almost 50 structures have been destroyed as 38 crews and a total of 1,300 fire personnel work to control the flames.
New evacuation warnings were issued for 50,000 residents for the entire towns of Healdsburg and Windsor. This number is in addition to the 43,000 people already under evacuation warnings from the Santa Rosa suburbs to the Pacific Coast, just 35 miles from the fire's current location. The evacuation orders now extend to the Pacific Ocean in Sonoma County, and there is concern that fire may cross Highway 101.
Cal Fire said residents need to be out of their homes by Saturday at 4 p.m. PDT.
The fires have not only driven people from their homes, but have also impacted businesses such as the wine industry. Nearly 40 square miles of the wine-growing region has been burned as of Saturday afternoon.
In terms of overall economic impact to California, wildfires in 2019 won't be as costly as they were in 2018, AccuWeather Founder and CEO Dr. Joel N. Myers said Friday. Myers estimated that wildfires this year will cost California $100 billion in economic losses, one-quarter of last year's impact, but higher than the $85 billion wildfires cost in 2017.
AccuWeather forecasters believe about half of a million acres in California could be scorched by the end of fire season, which should conclude in mid-December. AccuWeather's economic impact estimate is drawn from an in-depth analysis of the population of areas burned by wildfires, amount of acres burned and the number of businesses and homes damaged or destroyed. The analysis takes into account a host of other factors like school closures, insurance costs and state funds devoted to battling the fires.
"This estimate, which includes both insured and uninsured losses, is far greater than our estimate for the 2018 wildfire season, but far less than our estimate for 2017," Myers said. "Last year was a terrible year for wildfires in California, but the season ended earlier. This year it will end later than usual," he added.
Although wildfires have scorched only 210,000 acres across California in 2019 as of Oct. 25 -- a far cry from the 1.8 million acres burned last year and the 1.3 million burned in 2017 -- Myers emphasized that planned power outages this year are affecting more people and, though they may prevent fires from starting, also come with an economic cost.
"Power outages are more of a factor this year," Myers said of the planned blackouts. "That will result in a significant cost per customer per day as power utilities implement blackouts as a precaution throughout the state."
Diablo and Santa Ana winds, strong winds that accelerate down from the coastal range, over the past two days had carried with them the potential to down power lines and spark new fires.
In an effort to prevent a power line sparking a fire, PG&E initiated an unpopular move for the second "Public Safety Power Shutoff" this month on Wednesday in Northern California. Power has since been restored to many of the customers.
However, in a filed incident report from the Sr. Director of PG&E, the company was aware of a tower malfunction at 9:20 p.m. PDT Wednesday night. Cal Fire reports that the Kincade Fire started at 9:27 p.m. Wednesday night.
"We didn't see the wind speeds in the forecast that we typically would see for transmission outage," PG&E CEO Bill Johnson said at a press conference Friday. "We relied on the protocol and we still at this point do not know exactly what happened... The fact that we filed this [report], does not tell us what caused the fire."
The blackout has the potential to be the largest wind-related blackout yet.
More than 613,000 PG&E customers were already without power by 9:30 p.m. PDT Saturday, according to PowerOutage.us, with the outages mostly focused in Northern California. Sonoma County had the most outages at the time with over 18,000 customers in the dark.
The Tick Fire was rapidly approaching Ellie Laks' animal sanctuary founded on her dream to help animals and people alike. A few horses stood calmly in a pasture, waiting patiently at the gate, but thick smoke was rolling in over the mountains.
"It's moving very, very fast," Laks said, a few flames visible from over the mountains. The orange-brown smoke blotted out most of the sky.
With the power down, Laks took to Twitter to call for help in evacuating the 100 or so animals that called the sanctuary home as the Tick Fire crept over the mountainside.
"The Gentle Barn is home to animals who have nowhere else to go because they're too old, too sick, too lame or too scared to be adoptable," Laks told AccuWeather over the phone on Friday.
Dogs, birds, cows, sheep, pigs and other animals that called the sanctuary home were loaded up and driven off to about four different locations. Even a few oddballs like Earl the emu and King the llama had found a new temporary refuge.
Problems with the evacuation arose, however, when animals such as Zeus, an old, 750-pound pig, physically couldn't step up into a trailer to evacuate. Pigs typically live to 4 to 5 years old, according to The Good Barn. Zeus is still kicking at 12 years of age.
The sanctuary also had concerns for one of their older cows, who they feared would have a fatal slip trying to step into the trailer.
And then there was Zoe.
The Belgian draft horse had put on the brakes at the door of the trailer, refusing to leave her home.
"There was nothing wrong with her," Laks said. "There's nothing physically challenging for her, she just didn't want to, and how are you going to make a 2,500 pound horse do anything?"
From the afternoon until midnight, Laks, staff and volunteers worked to load the animals that they could into trucks and trailers. They crated the chickens and turkeys, led the goats by leashes and their horns and carried the sheep before loading the horses and cattle into the remaining trailers. The volunteers that didn't have trailers and couldn't lead the animals lined the street at the edge of the five acres, armed with fire extinguishers, jackets and blankets trying to put out approaching flames.
Weighing their options with the winds starting to ease up, the decision was made to keep animals like Zeus, Zoe and a potbelly pig named Jellie at the sanctuary while staying up for the rest of the night to keep an eye on the progress of the flames.
"We're praying that this wind dies down. As long as there's this ferocious wind, the fire could come back at any second," Laks said.