Southern California utilities cut the power to tens of thousands of customers to avoid the threat of wildfires as the region found itself whipped by Santa Ana winds that could turn sparks into catastrophes.
Red flag warnings of extreme fire danger were in place Thursday throughout much of the region because of low humidity, bone-dry brush and the winds, which sweep down from the interior with sustained winds of up to 35 mph but gusts of 50 mph to 70 mph (112.7 kph) at times, the National Weather Service said.
The warnings are in place into Saturday, with the winds at their greatest overnight and in early morning hours, the weather service said.
Utilities in the populous region began cutting power Wednesday to customers as a precaution to prevent gusts from blowing tree limbs into electrical equipment or knocking down power lines, which in recent years have sparked devastating wildfires.
Southern California Edison cut power to about 15,000 homes and businesses by late Wednesday night and was considering de-energizing lines serving a total of about 271,000 customers in seven counties throughout the windy period, which could last into Saturday.
It was one of the utility’s largest precautionary blackouts.
San Diego Gas & Electric pulled the plug on about 24,000 customers by Wednesday night with another 73,000 in the crosshairs.
“We recognize losing power is disruptive, and we sincerely thank our customers for their patience and understanding,” the utility said.
California already has experienced its worst-ever year for wildfires. More than 6,500 square miles (16,835 square kilometers) have been scorched, a total larger than the combined area of Connecticut and Rhode Island. At least 31 people have been killed and 10,500 homes and other structures damaged or destroyed.
The latest fire threat comes as much of California plunges deeper into drought. Virtually all of Northern California is in severe or extreme drought while nearly all of Southern California is abnormally dry or worse.
“Some years there’s some rain that tamps down the fire season. But not yet this year,” said meteorologist Adam Roser with the weather service in San Diego.
No rain is expected for Southern California for at least the next week and a half, he said.
Northern California, which has seen more precipitation this fall but not much recently, was expecting dry, windy weather starting this weekend.