Blackouts give way to smoke in fire-ravaged US West

SMOKE from California wildfires hangs over the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge in San Francisco, California, US, on Sept. 9. Powerful, dry winds are sweeping across Northern California for a third day, driving up the risk of wildfires in a region that’s been battered by heat waves, freak lightning storms and dangerously poor air quality from blazes. — MICHAEL SHORT/BLOOMBERG

FOR THE WEST COAST, the blackouts are mostly over. Now it’s a matter of flames and smoke.

In California, utilities that shut down their power lines this week to prevent fires during a wind storm switched the lights back on, restoring power on Wednesday to most of the half-million people affected. And the record heat wave that threatened the stability of the power grid for the entire Labor Day weekend seemed a distant, dismal memory.

Instead, California and its coastal neighbors face a more pressing threat — raging fires that have forced evacuations, strained fire-fighting resources and smothered much of the region in a twilight pall of smoke. Oregon, struck by the same wind storm that raked California, appeared to be particularly hard hit, with Governor Kate Brown warning that some towns had been largely destroyed.

“Over the last 24 hours, Oregon has experienced unprecedented fire, with significant damage and devastating consequences across the entire state,” she said Wednesday. “I want to be upfront and say we expect to see a great deal of loss, both in structures and in human lives.”

The crises add up to an unprecedented assault on the West Coast, where fires in California have already surpassed annual records, underscoring the deepening effects of climate change. The worst of the season may still be to come, with the most dangerous conditions for blazes typically occurring as dry winds pick up in the fall months.

Utilities in both California and Oregon cut off power to some customers in advance of this week’s winds, so that gusts couldn’t toss live electrical lines into tree limbs or grass. California’s PG&E Corp., which just emerged from bankruptcy in July after paying $25.5 billion to settle wildfire lawsuits, blacked out about 172,000 households and businesses Monday. By Wednesday evening, all but 20,000 had been restored as the winds faded.

“Our crews are still working and they will continue to work late into the evening to restore as many customers as we can,” Mark Quinlan, the incident commander of operations for PG&E, said during a briefing late Wednesday.

So far, PG&E had found 27 instances of its equipment being damaged by the winds including trees falling into de-energized power lines, Quinlan said.

“We haven’t found any evidence where we were involved in any wildfire ignitions,” he said.

But even the drastic step of turning off the power could not prevent all fires. More than 50 erupted in California during the storm, according to Governor Gavin Newsom. One sent flames racing toward Paradise, the town leveled nearly two years ago by California’s deadliest fire on record, the 2018 Camp Fire. Some survivors still in the midst of rebuilding fled for a second time.

In Oregon, Portland General Electric Co. shut off power to 5,000 customers before the wind storm. But the gusts knocked down many live power lines across the state.

“We saw downed power lines that started multiple fires,” said Mariana Ruiz-Temple, chief deputy state fire marshal. Portland General Electric said more than 1,100 of it own lines had been felled by the storm, and the company warned that people whose power had been proactively cut could be without electricity through the weekend.

Many of those not in the direct path of the flames Wednesday had to deal with thick smoke that blotted out the sun and smothered the landscape in a day-long orange twilight. Cars still required headlights at noon in San Francisco, ash drifted from the sky and residents tweeted joking comparisons to Mars.

“It definitely feels apocalyptic,” said Amanda Millstein, a pediatrician in the San Francisco Bay Area. “That’s how I’ve started every email today: ‘How is the new phase of the apocalypse going for you?'”

Her two-year-old daughter thought it was night when Millstein dropped her off at day care: “It looked like it was 10 at night when it was 8:30 in the morning,” Millstein said.

A ridge of high pressure across the West Coast has pinned the smoke in place, and it could be some time before California, Oregon and Washington get any relief from the soot, said Jim Hayes, a forecaster with the U.S. Weather Prediction Center.

“It is going to have to wait for the next system to kick it out and it could take some time,” Hayes said by telephone. “The high pressure is anchored in place and is not allowing the air to mix out and make things any better.” — Bloomberg

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