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PG&E power shutdown planned to avoid sparking wildfires in Northern California

PG&E begins power outage in California

California's largest utility company planned to cut off power to as many as 800,000 customers on Wednesday to prevent its equipment from sparking wildfires. The National Weather Service warned the fire danger in Northern California was expected to reach "extreme" levels as winds picked up.

CBS News correspondent Jonathan Vigliotti reported Tuesday evening, with the first blackouts just hours away, that most of Northern California was on edge, waiting for the lights to go out.

Pacific Gas & Electric warned of "one of the most severe dry wind events we've seen in our territory in recent years," and to prepare for it the utility said it "expects to begin turning off power in some areas early Wednesday, just after midnight."

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Analysts at the Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) Wildfire Safety Operations Center monitor a wildfire in an August 5, 2019 file photo in San Francisco, California. Getty

PG&E, whose faulty equipment was blamed for devastating fires that swept through the region one year ago, said it would switch off the power to communities in stages, "depending on local timing of the severe wind conditions, beginning with counties in the northern part of the state."

Michael Lewis, senior vice president for PG&E's electric operations, apologized in advance for the chaos the sweeping outages were likely to cause.

"We understand the effects this event will have on our customers and appreciate the public's patience as we do what is necessary to keep our communities safe and reduce the risk of wildfire," he said in a statement on Monday.

The lasting damage of the worst wildfire in California's history

Last November, powerful nighttime winds whipped a fire through the streets of Paradise, killing 86 people and destroying 1,900 buildings. The worst fire in California history was blamed on faulty electric lines owned by PG&E, and now the company faces billions of dollars in liability.

PG&E said that with 50-mile-per-hour winds forecast on Wednesday, it simply couldn't afford to take any chances.

"We value human life and will assume that this is necessary to avoid devastating wildfires and to preserve life," Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said Tuesday.

Adding to the frustration in California was confusion over exactly when individual communities might be thrust into the dark. PG&E's website, where clients should be able to get the latest information from the utility, was overloaded and most were unable to access it as the clock ticked toward Wednesday morning.

The company apologized for the outage in a tweet, said it was working to fix the problem, and urged clients in another post to sign up for alerts via text message.

Thad Mazzoni's neighborhood of Coffey Park burned to the ground in 2017, and only 10 percent of his neighbors have returned home since. He told Vigliotti that worrying about wild fires has become his new normal.

"It's just something people have to get used to," he said. "A new reality."

PG&E said the power cuts could begin any time from midnight on the West Coast, and they're expected to be the largest planned power cuts in state history. Officials said it could take as long as seven days to turn the power back on for all customers.

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