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Cliff Mass says ‘preemptive blackouts’ could lessen chance of wildfires

The wildfires that killed at least 30 people by Friday morning and destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses may have been preventable by shutting off power, Seattle climatologist Cliff Mass says.

RELATED: Emergency alerts get scrutiny after wildfires

“There is a history of California wildfires started by falling trees/branches during strong wind events … So if downed or arcing power lines was the key initiator of Sunday/Monday’s fires what can we do to lessen the chances of a repeat of the tragedy?” the University of Washington professor of atmospheric sciences asks in his latest blog post.

Though investigations into the fires — the largest in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties — continue, initial stories about what caused the fires include reports of downed power lines and exploding transformers, The Mercury News reports. Though there were initial claims of “hurricane strength” winds, The Mercury News reports many of the recorded sustained wind speeds were below what power lines must by able to withstand — 56 mph. There were gusts of more than 70 mph in some areas.

If the current fires were avoidable using preventative measures, Pacific Gas and Electric Co., the state’s largest utility, could be held at least partially responsible for the damage. In April, the utility was fined $8.3 million for the Butte fire that burned for 22 days, destroyed more than 500 homes, and killed two people.

But Mass says such events could be avoidable by cutting power to areas that are prone to wildfires caused by downed power lines, transformers, and fallen trees. He suggests that these “preemptive blackouts” would only occur when dry conditions and high winds (in excess of 40 mph) are “imminent and threatening.” The blackout would run for about 11 hours, with warnings provided days before, Mass suggests.

“Yes, there would be some inconvenience, but that would be minor compared to the benefits,” he writes. “In the present case, we are talking about saving roughly two-dozen lives and tens of billions of dollars of economic impacts.”

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