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California mass blackout set to affect more than 1.5m people

Move by utility company PG&E is an attempt to keep its power lines from sparking wildfires amid high winds

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Residents of California face the second power shutoff in two weeks.

San Francisco

MORE than 100,000 homes and businesses across Northern California are beginning to lose power as part of a mass blackout that may eventually affect more than a million people across the state.

PG&E Corp began cutting power to customers in counties near Sacramento and Napa Valley on Wednesday afternoon in an attempt to keep its power lines from sparking wildfires amid high winds. The blackout is set to spread to other parts of the San Francisco Bay Area overnight.

Southern California utilities are also warning of shutoffs. In all, more than 1.5 million people may go dark, based on customer estimates and the average household size.

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PG&E has been taking more extreme measures to prevent fires since its equipment sparked a series of blazes that devastated California in 2017 and 2018, saddling the state's largest utility with an estimated US$30 billion in liabilities and forcing it into bankruptcy.

The shutoffs are hitting just two weeks after the company carried out the biggest planned blackout in California history, plunging about two million people into darkness and igniting a debate over how far the state is willing to go to stop fires.

Winds are forecast to slow by noon on Thursday, but another storm may hit the region over the weekend and last into next week, according to the National Weather Service. PG&E has warned that there's an "elevated risk" of more shutoffs in eight of its nine geographical zones starting on Sunday. It said the next storm may prove to be even bigger.

"There is a pretty high threat Saturday night into Sunday and possibly Sunday night into Monday," said Spencer Tangen, a weather service meteorologist in Monterey, California.

"It is looking like they could be stronger than what we are seeing with this current one."

In the Los Angeles area, Edison International is warning that it may cut the lights to 308,000 customers, but didn't say when it'll decide. In San Diego, Sempra Energy estimated that 24,000 could lose power.

The threat of wildfires was listed as critical across the state on Wednesday with dry winds set to "ramp up considerably." Thursday is expected to be the worst for storms across Southern California, the weather service said.

Once the winds have died down, utilities will have to inspect and repair lines before restoring service. PG&E has a goal of returning power to the vast majority of customers within 48 hours of the weather passing - potentially just in time for the next wind storm to hit.

The PG&E blackout that struck earlier this month drew outrage from residents and state officials who accused the utility of cutting service to more customers than necessary and failing to properly communicate its plans. The company has since vowed to improve communications. BLOOMBERG