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California faces strong winds as blackout spreads

SAN FRANCISCO — A powerful windstorm is roaring toward Southern California as utilities cut electricity to as many as 2.5 million people to prevent power lines from sparking fires.

High winds will leave nearly half the state’s population facing critical fire conditions, the US Storm Prediction Center said. PG&E Corp. began shutoffs that may affect 596,000 Northern California homes and businesses. Further south, Edison International and Sempra Energy may cut power to more than 246,000 customers.

“A very strong wind event with the combination of low relative humidity will create a very high fire danger,” said David Sweet of the National Weather Service. It may be Southern California’s strongest windstorm since 2007, he said.

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The blackouts, California’s fourth this month, are intended to prevent live wires from falling into brush and sparking fires as arid winds leave the region bone dry. At least 10 large blazes are burning across the state, prompting hundreds of thousands of evacuations near Los Angeles and in Sonoma County. Some PG&E customers have been without power for days.

California utilities have been resorting to mass blackouts this year after deadly blazes in 2017 and 2018 were blamed on PG&E power lines. The fires saddled the company with an estimated $30 billion in liabilities, forcing it to file for bankruptcy in January.

The deliberate outages by the utilities are drawing widespread ire, and state regulators said Monday they would investigate them.

Fires, meanwhile, continue to spread in the driving winds.

The most powerful winds will be in Southern California, where the Getty fire has scorched more than 600 acres and spurred thousands of evacuations around Los Angeles. The region could see gusts of up to 85 miles per hour, the US Storm Prediction Center said. Humidity will plummet.

“The peak is to take place shortly before sunrise Wednesday,” Sweet said. The winds may ebb Thursday, he said.

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Northern California will see less extreme conditions but faces gusts strong enough to fan the flames of wildfires already burning.

As fires engulfed hillsides, smoke is drifting into cities. Commuters in San Francisco wore face masks Monday to protect against the fumes.

More than 3 million people were hit by PG&E blackouts over the weekend. The company has restored power to more than half of those customers. Restoration work is continuing, but some customers may not get their power back by the time the new outage hits.

The company’s power lines are already being probed in connection with some of this year’s fires.

On Monday, PG&E disclosed its equipment may have sparked two small blazes in the San Francisco Bay Area. And the Kincade fire in Sonoma County was reported minutes after a PG&E line in the area malfunctioned. It has burned more than 75,000 acres and destroyed 124 structures as of early Tuesday.

PG&E shares gained 32 percent Tuesday after the judge overseeing its bankruptcy ordered victims of previous wildfires to enter into mediation with the company.

Officials on Tuesday said a tree branch striking a power line ignited a wildfire near the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. That fire destroyed a dozen homes in a star-studded area and drove LeBron James, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and other celebrities from their homes.

Meanwhile, Southern California Edison announced Tuesday that it believes its equipment caused the Woolsey fire last year north of Los Angeles that killed three people and destroyed more than 1,600 homes and other buildings.

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Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.