PG&E cuts power across Northern California as winds bring critical fire danger

Los Angeles Times 2 months ago

Large swaths of Northern California woke up in the dark early Wednesday as Pacific Gas & Electric began its sweeping plan to shut off power to about 800,000 customers in a desperate attempt to avoid wildfires sparked by high winds damaging power equipment.

The first power cutoffs, expected to affect 513,000 customers, began shortly after midnight in several counties around Sacramento, including Placer and Yuba, amid increasing winds and continued to roll out into the early morning hours.

By 12:30 a.m., power was cut in large portions of wine country including Napa and Sonoma. Portions of Marin County—just above San Francisco—lost power next. Minutes later, the utility cut service to the first homes in El Dorado County and sections of the upper Sacramento Valley. By 5 a.m., the outages had extended to Humbolt County to the north, Marin County to the south and as far as Nevada County to the east, according to the utility.

The second phase of the shutoff is expected to occur around noon in areas around Silicon Valley and the East Bay. About 234,000 customers in Alameda, Alpine, Contra Costa, Mariposa, San Joaquin, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties are expected to be without power.

The utility said Wednesday it is considering shutting off power to about 42,000 customers in the southernmost portion of PG&E’s service area, but specific locations have not been determined.

The blackouts are expected to ultimately impact impact 34 counties in Central and Northern California. It marks the largest power shutdown so far as utilities across the state attempt to reduce wildfire risk due to heavy wind. Utilities malfunctions have been tied to some of the state’s most destructive and deadly fires, including last year’s Camp fire, which devastated the town of Paradise, killing 86 people, and the 2017 wine country blazes.

“The safety of our customers and the communities we serve is our most important responsibility, which is why PG&E has decided to turn power off to customers during this widespread, severe wind event. 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,” said Michael Lewis, PG&E’s senior vice president of Electric Operations.

Based on the latest weather forecasts, the utility says it expects high winds will last through midday Thursday with peak winds reaching up to 70 mph from early Wednesday through Thursday morning. Once the fire weather subsides, PG&E employees will check the grid in person and electronically before determining if it is safe to turn it back on, a company official said.

It took the utility less than a day to restore power to customers during a three-county shut-off it performed last weekend and during another in September, the company said in a statement.

Assembly Republican leader Marie Waldron (R-Escondido) said PG&E’s announcement is a sign of how far the state has fallen behind in efforts to prevent catastrophic wildfires.

“This is the frustrating result of decades of forest mismanagement and aging energy infrastructure,” Waldron said. “These shutoffs highlight the need to invest in vegetation management, update our energy grid and help Californians harden their homes against wildfires.”

On Tuesday, Southern California Edison announced it also was considering preventive power outages. The utility said that given the anticipated strong Santa Ana winds, power could be cut off to more than 106,000 customers in parts of eight Southern California counties.

Edison’s possible outage would primarily affect customers in Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside counties. Also under consideration are areas in Ventura County and portions of Kern, Tulare, Inyo and Mono counties.

The power shut-offs have generated debate, with some residents saying they create a whole new set of dangers as they try to watch for news about fires. There has been heightened concern about those with health issues who rely on medical equipment.

Throughout Tuesday, the staff at the Ukiah Senior Center were scrambling to prepare for the planned outage, buying butane canisters at sporting goods stores so they could make coffee and freezing water bottles in case the power was out for days.

Relief came in the form of an email, when city leaders alerted the community just after 3:30 p.m. that PG&E had indicated that Ukiah’s electric system won’t be affected by the planned outages. Local leaders did warn that, because extreme weather is expected, outages could still occur.

“People have been on pins and needles all day because of the uncertainty,” said Diana Clarke, the senior center’s executive director. “They don’t know if they should go out and buy supplies, and especially with seniors, they don’t have a lot of extra money.”

The senior center provides residents with hot meals Monday through Friday and delivers meals to older residents who aren’t able to leave their homes. On Tuesday, the center’s outreach supervisor was busy calling people to tell them they weren’t sure whether they would have electricity and thus be able to prepare meals for delivery, Clarke said.

There is a deep sense of frustration, and skepticism, in the community at the idea of losing power to protect them from wildfires, she said.

“PG&E should have been doing the proper maintenance for the last decade,” Clarke said. “This wouldn’t have been necessary [if they had], and I think that’s what has got everyone so angry and frustrated with PG&E right now. This is a crisis of PG&E’s making.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Office of Emergency Services has been in contact with the emergency workers managing the impacts created by power shutoffs, according to spokesman Brian Ferguson.

“It’s clear that this is a complex and rapidly evolving challenge,” Ferguson said. “We continue to work with local and state law enforcement and local community leaders to minimize the impact of these power outages and keep residents safe.”

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