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PG&E may cut power to thousands to prevent new blazes as Dixie Fire spreads

An evacuation notice posted on a mailbox for a residence on North Arm Road during the Dixie Fire near Taylorsville, Calif., on Aug. 15. (David Odisho/Bloomberg)

As the flames from the Dixie Fire, the second-largest wildfire in California’s history, continue to spread, the state’s largest utility says it might shut off power, including in areas near the fire, to prevent further blazes from sparking.

Pacific Gas & Electric said late Sunday that it might issue power shut-offs affecting 16 California counties to prevent wildfires, outages that could impact nearly 40,000 customers. The majority of affected customers would be in Butte and Shasta counties, the company said. Butte County is one of four counties where the Dixie Fire is raging.

The Dixie Fire had mushroomed to more than 569,000 acres as of early Monday. More than 6,500 firefighters are battling a blaze that has destroyed nearly 1,200 structures, including more than 600 residences, since it began burning more than a month ago.

Dixie Fire mushrooms into second-largest wildfire in California history

PG&E said forecast dry winds prompted the warning about potential power shut-offs that would begin Tuesday night. The company said that it is closely monitoring conditions and had started alerting customers who could be affected if the outages take place.

“Given this wind event and current conditions including extreme to exceptional drought and extremely dry vegetation, PG&E has begun sending 48-hour advance notifications to customers in targeted areas where PG&E may need to proactively turn power off for safety to reduce the risk of wildfire from energized power lines,” the company said in a Sunday release.

Fire officials said during a Monday morning briefing about the Dixie Fire that a red-flag warning denoting high fire risk would be issued at 3 p.m. and continue until late Tuesday. Officials said smoke over the fire has been moderating conditions, but as winds pick up and clear out the smoke, those increased winds could increase fire activity.

An incident commander told fire crews to “expect chaos today.”

“Thirty plus days on the incident is becoming the norm now here in California,” an incident commander for firefighting efforts said during the briefing. “The fuels conditions are worse than we’ve ever seen, the fire behavior is worse than we’ve ever seen. It’s not unprecedented anymore, it’s the norm.”

The fire is 31 percent contained.

The shut-offs are considered a last-resort effort by the company to reduce the risk of wildfires by powering down lines when severe weather could fuel a blaze sparked by the utility’s equipment. Last month, the company announced another effort meant to prevent blazes that would bury 10,000 miles of power lines in California that PG&E says could not only further prevent fires but also reduce the need for preventive outages.

The latest warning about likely shut-offs come as PG&E is already under scrutiny for the potential role it has played in sparking this year’s flames. While the cause of the Dixie Fire is under investigation, the company has said in a preliminary report to state regulators that its equipment may have played a role in sparking the blaze. U.S. District Judge William Alsup has ordered the company to provide information related to the tree that fell on a PG&E power line at the blaze’s origin.

“PG&E’s responses will not be deemed as an admission by PG&E that it caused any fire, but they will serve as a starting point for discussion,” Alsup wrote.

The Dixie Fire has since grown to the largest fire actively burning in the nation, and one of 97 large fires actively burning across the U.S. It is one of the 15 most destructive fires in the state’s history, and it tore through historic buildings in recent days as it decimated the Gold Rush-era town of Greenville, Calif.

Read more:

What they saved from the flames

The Dixie Fire destroyed this small California town. A week later, its residents remain in limbo.

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