REDDING, California - More than 513,000 Northern California homes and businesses went dark Wednesday in the first phase of a Public Safety Power Shutoff aimed at curbing wildfire risks amid high winds and hot, dry conditions.
Another 234,000 Pacific Gas and Electric customers will lose power at noon California time, and 42,000 customers in the southernmost areas of the company's reach could also go dark, the company said.
The precautionary shutdown is expected to last through most of Thursday, and some municipalities could be without power longer as the utility ramps back up after the winds abate.
"The safety of our customers and the communities we serve is our most important responsibility, which is why PG&E has decided to turn power off to customers during this widespread, severe wind event," said Michael Lewis, a senior vice president for California's largest power company. "We ... appreciate the public's patience as we do what is necessary to keep our communities safe and reduce the risk of wildfire."
Schools were shuttered for thousands of students as municipalities braced for days without power.
"It's unfortunate, but we just do as we are instructed, and are hoping we can get kids back into school on Friday," Cascade Union Elementary School District Superintendent Jason Provence said.
Parts of Southern California could also go dark - Southern California Edison said it was considering implementing the Public Safety Power Shutoff plan to cut power to 173,000 customers.
That would push the total to almost 1 million homes and businesses statewide. Because every customer account could represent service to multiple residents or employees in a business, the number of people affected by the outages could be in the millions.
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Lewis said PG&E anticipates the wind "weather event" will last through midday Thursday; peak winds are forecast to reach 60 to 70 mph at higher elevations. Nearly all nine counties in the San Francisco Bay Area could be subjected to the shutdowns, the only exception being the city and county of San Francisco.
PG&E will open resource centers with charging stations and restrooms available to the public during daylight hours.
"They're places where affected customers can come in to charge electronic devices, obtain bottled water and use available restrooms," PG&E spokesman Mark Mesesan said. "It's more of an in-and-out option. They're not equipped as a place to stay."
PG&E has been under intense scrutiny since November, when the deadliest and most devastating wildfire in state history roared through Butte County. California fire officials determined the blaze, which killed 85 people and destroyed more than 10,000 homes, was ignited by the company's transmission lines.
The beleaguered utility filed for bankruptcy earlier this year, and a new CEO has tried to restructure the company and win back customer confidence. The blackout warning hasn't played well, however - the company's website crashed amid heavy traffic, preventing subscribers from finding information about the blackouts.
The state is bracing for another severe wildfire "season," although officials say that season has become just about year-round. PG&E ordered a much smaller power cutoff in June involving thousands of customers in the Northern California counties of Napa, Solano and Yolo.
On Tuesday, Cal Fire issued a fire warning across much of the state.
"There is a #RedFlagWarning for most of Northern California and #FireWeatherWatch for the southernmost region of California from Wednesday morning to Thursday evening due to gusty winds and low humidity," Cal Fire warned on Twitter. "This is #CriticalFireWeather and caution should be taken when outdoors."
There is a #RedFlagWarning for most of Northern California and #FireWeatherWatch for the southernmost region of California from Wednesday morning to Thursday evening due to gusty winds and low humidity. This is #CriticalFireWeather and caution should be taken when outdoors. pic.twitter.com/a1oQdkDY4e
- CAL FIRE (@CAL_FIRE) October 8, 2019
Residents in areas where power was going out lined up at gas stations and streamed into stores in pursuit of generators, flashlights, batteries and non-perishable food.
Jennifer Siemens, whose home in Paradise burned in the Camp Fire last year, said she's now renting in nearby Oroville and is preparing for her third power shutdown in a month. Siemens said the outages scare her children, who were traumatized during the massive Paradise blaze, and also affect the family's cleaning business.
"What's wrong with the power lines that they have to do this so much?" asked Siemens. "We don't want any more fires, obviously, but I feel like they are going a little overboard."
Bacon reported from McLean, Va.Contributing: Jorge L. Ortiz, Kristin Lam, USA TODAY; David Benda, Redding Record Searchlight; Gabrielle Paluch, Palm Springs Desert Sun
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: PG&E power shutdown: California power outage affects 500k