LOS ANGELES (AP) — Californians hoping December would finally usher in wetter weather after a disastrous fire season were instead bracing Wednesday for another round of dry winds that raised the threat of wildfire danger and widespread power shutoffs.
Utilities in the southern part of the state warned they may cut electricity to more than 350,000 customers as a precaution during the windy period expected to last into the weekend.
“Overnight and in the early morning hours the winds are really going to get going,” said meteorologist Adam Roser with the National Weather Service in San Diego. Gusts could top 75 mph (121 kph) in some areas and widespread winds nearing 50 mph (80 kph) are possible across the region, he said.
The weather service issued warnings for dangerous fire conditions into Saturday because of the dry Santa Ana winds, low humidity and parched grass, trees and brush, especially in valleys and mountains.
“There will be very critical fire weather risk,” Roser said.
Southern California’s Santa Ana winds blow from the interior toward the coast and often bring powerful gusts, especially below mountain passes and canyons. Though most prevalent in October and November, the winds are not uncommon in early December, Roser said.
Northern California, which has seen more precipitation this fall but not much recently, was expecting dry, windy weather starting this weekend.
California already has experienced its worst-ever year for wildfires. They have scorched more than 6,500 square miles (16,835 square kilometers), a total larger than the combined area of Connecticut and Rhode Island. At least 31 people have been killed and 10,500 homes and other structures damaged or destroyed.
The latest fire threat comes as much of California plunges deeper into drought. Virtually all of Northern California is in severe or extreme drought while nearly all of Southern California is abnormally dry or worse.
“Some years there’s some rain that tamps down the fire season. But not yet this year,” Roser said, adding that no precipitation is expected for Southern California for at least the next week and a half.
Concerns that winds will bring down tree branches that could hit electrical equipment or knock loose lines and spark wildfires in tinder-dry brush prompted Southern California Edison to warn that it is considering shutting off power to more than 270,000 customers
That would be about 5% of the utility’s 5 million customers and would affect the counties of Kern, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Tulare and Ventura. Outages began Wednesday morning for a few hundred customers in the LA and Ventura areas.
Last week, the utility cut power to more than 16,000 customers because of Santa Ana winds and fire danger. Edison has said that its equipment likely sparked a raging wildfire that critically injured two firefighters and destroyed five homes in October.
San Diego Gas & Electric warned Tuesday that 88,720 customers could see days-long shutoffs as early as Wednesday night or Thursday morning.