Friday, August 9, 2019 - 09:00

(TNS) - Northern California communities hit by some of the worst wildfires the state has ever seen are now preparing for another kind of disaster: prolonged power shut-offs caused intentionally by Pacific Gas and Electric Co.

PG&E has used its aggressive new strategy to prevent its equipment from starting another fire only on one weekend so far this year. But the utility is poised to turn off the lights much more in the coming months as hot, dry and windy weather persists during the most dangerous part of wildfire season.

The impacts may be extreme and unprecedented, cutting entire cities off from the electric grid for several days in the worst-case scenarios. In those instances, stoplights and even cell phones could stop working properly, local officials say, snarling traffic and hamstringing residents’ ability to communicate.

“You can imagine the chaos that would ensue,” Chico Police Chief Michael O’Brien said of possible shut-offs in his city. “How do you ready a population of 112,000 people without power and means for communication?”

Chico knows the risk of a utility-caused wildfire all too well. A PG&E tower east of the city broke in November and started the Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in state history, virtually destroying the nearby town of Paradise. Thousands of Camp Fire victims moved to Chico afterward.

As he considered the prospect of the entire city losing power for as long as a week, O’Brien asked Chico City Council members Tuesday to preemptively authorize curfews when PG&E turns off electricity. He’s concerned about how the blackouts would affect traffic, communication and home security. The city has not yet made a decision about the proposed curfew; officials are continuing to study it alongside other preparation measures.

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