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Utility Slow to Cut Power     10/28 07:04


   LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Facing extreme wildfire conditions this week that 
included hurricane-level winds, the main utility in Northern California cut 
power to nearly 1 million people while its counterpart in Southern California 
pulled the plug on just 30 customers to prevent power lines and other 
electrical equipment from sparking a blaze.

   Pacific Gas & Electric Co. avoided major wildfires during its outage, while 
Southern California Edison is trying to determine if one of its power lines 
started a massive fire that drove nearly 100,000 people from their homes in 
Orange County during fierce winds and extremely dry conditions early Monday.

   "I don't know why they did not shut power off," said attorney Gerald 
Singleton, who has sued utilities for devastating wildfires caused by their 
equipment. "They seem to be still be operating as if climate change and all 
these things we're dealing with are not a reality."

   The utility defended its decision not to institute a type of blackout used 
increasingly as a means of protecting residents after several devastating 
wildfires, including a 2018 inferno sparked by PG&E equipment that nearly razed 
the community of Paradise, killed 85 people and destroyed 19,000 homes and 
other buildings.

   Edison spokesman Chris Abel said wind speeds in the mountains above the city 
of Irvine at the time had not reached the threshold to pull the plug on the 
power, though they did later in the morning when some electric circuits were 

   "It's not something that we take lightly," Abel said of the decision to shut 
off electricity. "We know that not having power is a tremendous burden on our 

   The Silverado Fire broke out in gusty weather just before 7 a.m. Monday near 
Irvine, a city of 280,000 about 35 miles (56 kilometers) south of Los Angeles. 
According to SoCal Edison's report to state utility regulators, a "lashing 
wire" that ties a telecommunications line to a supporting cable may have come 
into contact with a separate 12,000-volt Edison conductor line above.

   That blaze and the Blue Ridge Fire farther north in the county, which broke 
out several hours later in the brushy hills of Yorba Linda, kept more than 
70,000 people from their homes Tuesday as winds returned, but not as strongly 
as the day before when they blew over tractor-trailers and grounded 
firefighting aircraft.

   Some evacuation orders were canceled during the day but a few new orders or 
warnings were added as the Blue Ridge Fire advanced.

   The winds were subsiding and Wednesday through the rest of the week should 
be calm, the National Weather Service said.

   However, forecasts called for continued warm, dry weather around the state 
into November, without a trace of rain.

   Two firefighters who battled the Silverado Fire remained in critical 
condition after suffering second- and third-degree burns over large portions of 
their bodies, Orange County Fire Authority Chief Brian Fennessey said.

   "It's tough for any firefighter, certainly any fire chief ..., to feel this 
helpless when you've got part of our fire family fighting for their lives," 
Fennessey said at a Tuesday news conference.

   Three other firefighters had suffered lesser injuries battling the blazes.

   At least 10 homes were damaged and thousands of homes remained threatened as 
flames moved toward neighborhoods. There was little containment of the fires, 
though weather conditions were improving.

   The fires moved with extraordinary speed and residents described the fear 
they felt when told to evacuate and then having to navigate through 
orange-tinted smoke on traffic-choked roads.

   Elizabeth Akhparyan Park and her husband, Tony, initially heeded the warning 
when smoke darkened their Irvine home even though they couldn't see fire. After 
joining their three children at her mother's home in Tustin, they decided to 
return at night for more keepsakes.

   They fled the second time with photo albums and her husband's violin after 
seeing flames across the road and hearing police say it was time to go.

   "Now I see it, now I've got to go," Park recalled. "The windows were 
shaking, the upstairs patio had the chairs flying around."

   In Northern California, two dozen wildfires reported since Sunday were 
rapidly contained without serious damage.

   Red flag warnings of extreme fire danger expired and easing winds allowed 
PG&E to begin restoring power after the largest of five safety shutoffs this 
year. At its peak, PG&E cut power to about 345,000 customers -- nearly 1 
million people -- in 34 counties.

   The nation's largest utility said it restored power to more than 300,000 
customers, and expected to nearly complete the work by late Tuesday night, with 
a small number having to wait until Wednesday after crews do inspections to 
make repairs and ensure equipment is safe. PG&E said it received more than 130 
reports of damage or hazards to its equipment.

   Scientists have said climate change has made California much drier, meaning 
trees and other plants are more flammable. October and November are 
traditionally the worst months for fires, but already this year 8,600 wildfires 
in the state have scorched a record 6,400 square miles (16,600 square 
kilometers) and destroyed about 9,200 homes, businesses and other buildings. 
There have been 31 deaths.

   Gov. Gavin Newsom said Tuesday that 42 wildfires had erupted over the 24 
hours that ended Tuesday morning.

   When the Orange County fires broke out Monday morning, Edison had only cut 
power to 30 customers in the Santa Clarita Valley north of Los Angeles. As of 
Tuesday night, only about 2,000 of Edison's 5 million customers were without 
power, according to an outage website.

   A study by the Manhattan Institute last year found that PG&E was far more 
likely to institute emergency shutoffs -- and cut off power to far more people 
-- than Edison in Southern California. PG&E was driven into bankruptcy in 
January 2019 from the costs of wildfires caused by its equipment.

   Jonathan Lesser, an adjunct fellow at the conservative think tank and 
coauthor of the report, said catastrophic fires caused by failing electric 
equipment or debris blowing into powerlines are outliers. Some of the largest 
fires in state history burned this year and were sparked by lightning.

   Lesser said preemptive blackouts are like a cheap insurance policy for 
utilities that don't have to account for costs to hundreds of thousands of 
customers who lose power. When the lights go out, many businesses are forced to 
close, homeowners have to toss spoiled food and vital medical equipment can't 
be used.

   "Obviously, you can say in retrospect that it would have been better if SCE 
cut power where the line was. But that's not how risk analysis works," Lesser 
said. "You can't approach this as would have, could have, should have."

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