By Olga R. Rodriguez and Janie Har

The Associated Press

Bottled water and batteries were flying off the shelves at California stores as millions of customers prepared to live without electricity for days in the face of what Pacific Gas & Electric called an unprecedented wildfire danger.

The utility announced that it was shutting off power to 800,000 customers in 34 northern, central and coastal California counties beginning as early as midnight Wednesday to reduce the chance of fierce winds knocking down or toppling trees into power lines during hot, dry, gusty weather.

Gusts of 35 to 45 mph were forecast to sweep a vast swath of the state, from the San Francisco Bay Area to the agricultural Central Valley and especially in the Sierra Nevada foothills, where a November wildfire blamed on PG&E transmission lines killed 85 people and virtually incinerated the town of Paradise.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention said it increased staffing in preparation for extreme fire weather.

The winds will be the strongest and most widespread the region has seen in two years, and given the scope of the danger, there was no other choice but to stage the largest preventive blackout in state history, PG&E said.

“This is a last resort,” said Sumeet Singh, head of the utility’s Community Wildfire Safety Program.

However, people should be outraged by the move, Gov. Gavin Newsom said. “No one is satisfied with this, no one is happy with this,” he said.

The utility needs to upgrade and fix its equipment so massive outages aren’t the norm going forward, he said.

It could take as many as five days to restore power after the danger has passed because every inch of power line must be checked to make sure it isn’t damaged or in danger of sparking a blaze, PG&E said.

San Francisco is the only county in the nine-county Bay Area where power will not be affected. Classes were canceled for thousands of schoolchildren and at the University of California, Berkeley, Sonoma State University and Mills College. The California Department of Transportation said it was installing generators to avoid closing the Caldecott Tunnel linking the East Bay to San Francisco and the Tom Lantos Tunnel on State Route 1 in Pacifica.

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