SONOMA, Calif. (AP) — More than a million people in California were without electricity Wednesday as the state’s largest utility pulled the plug to prevent a repeat of the past two years when windblown power lines sparked deadly wildfires that destroyed thousands of homes.
The unpopular move that disrupted daily life — prompted by forecasts calling for dry, gusty weather — came after catastrophic fires sent Pacific Gas & Electric Co. into bankruptcy and forced it to take more aggressive steps to prevent blazes.
The drastic measure caused long lines at supermarkets and hardware stores as people rushed to buy ice, coolers, flashlights and batteries across a swath of Northern California. Cars backed up at traffic lights that had gone dark. Schools and universities canceled classes. And many businesses closed.
More than 500,000 customers in Northern California were without power, the utility said.
PG&E had warned that it planned to expand the outages to about 250,000 other customers later in the day to prevent its equipment from sparking wildfires during winds that are forecast to build. About 2 million people were expected to be affected for up to several days.
By late Wednesday night, however, shutoffs had only been extended to a few counties in the Sierra Nevada foothills and the central valley, leaving the San Francisco Bay Area unaffected.
Spokesman Jeff Smith said it was unclear when the Bay Area would be hit because it depended on the weather, which authorities were watching closely.
The utility took drastic action because of hot, dry Diablo winds sweeping into Northern California, said Scott Strenfel, PG&E’s principal meteorologist. They were also part of a California-wide weather system that will produce Santa Ana winds in the south in the next day or so, he said.
“These (weather) events historically are the events that cause the most destructive wildfires in California history,” Strenfel said.