As two wildfires raged across Southern California on Tuesday, nearly doubling in size overnight and forcing thousands more people to flee their homes, the state’s utility companies are again coming under scrutiny for their potential role in sparking new blazes.
Southern California Edison said its equipment may have played a role in starting one of the fires, the Silverado Fire, which had churned through about 13,000 acres in Orange County.
The fire raised more concerns about whether utilities have substantially improved their safety efforts, and whether the company should have more broadly shut off power in Southern California this week. Edison’s posture stood in contrast to Pacific Gas and Electric, which turned off power to a broad swath of Northern California beginning on Sunday over fears of dangerous wildfire conditions.
Fueled by strong Santa Ana winds, the fires in Orange County have put more than 90,000 people under emergency evacuation orders, many of them in Irvine. Their homes are being threatened by both the Silverado Fire and the Blue Ridge Fire, which has a footprint of about 15,000 acres.
Investigators have not determined what ignited the fires, but on Monday, Southern California Edison filed its second wildfire incident report this year, saying that a telecommunications line might have struck its equipment and might have caused the Silverado Fire. Last month, the utility filed a report that said its equipment was part of an investigation into the cause of the Bobcat Fire, which burned about 116,000 acres near Pasadena.
Edison said on Tuesday that it did not cut power to the line possibly connected with the Silverado Fire because wind speeds were not high enough to warrant it.
Even critics of the utilities cautioned against drawing conclusions about the incident reports. Telecommunications companies hang their wires on utility poles and are responsible for their own equipment.
“We don’t want to make any wide-eyed accusations without having the evidence,” said Mark Toney, executive director of the Utility Reform Network, which represents consumers before the utility commission.
The record-breaking 2020 fire season has seen enormous wildfires tear across California and other states in the West. Experts have linked the worsening fire season to climate change, as emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases from the burning of fossil fuels have led to warmer and drier conditions.
Daniel Swain, a climate scientist with the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at the University of California, Los Angeles, said that while fall fires are predictable, “Just about everything else about the present situation is quite unusual.”
More than five million acres have burned across California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington State this year. In California alone, fires have burned more than 4.1 million acres, destroyed 10,488 homes and other structures and led to at least 31 deaths.
There were concerns on Tuesday about whether the wildfires could affect voting in Orange County, where thousands of people are under evacuation orders. Numerous places around Irvine and other parts of the county, such as parks and schools and community centers, had been set up as evacuation centers. At least four of those sites, officials said, are also slated to be voting centers, raising the possibility that they may not be able to open for voters later in the week if the fires do not subside.
“Right now we’re at a wait and see,” said Neal Kelley, Orange County’s registrar of voters. “We’ll start making decisions tomorrow.”
Mr. Kelley said he had been in consultation with fire officials on Tuesday, and had been told they were hopeful that the winds would subside, and that evacuees would be able to go home in time for voting. He said the county’s plan had been to set up the voting sites on Thursday, to be ready to open on Friday.
More than 750 firefighters have been battling the blazes, which were known to have damaged 10 homes as of late Tuesday afternoon. But the area of concern widened as winds blew the fires to new areas, including toward Chino Hills, a city of about 84,000 people that sits at the corner of Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside Counties.