PG&E’s Public Safety Power Shutoff begins
First round smaller than expected; multiple counties under warning
By Rick Hurd and Annie Sciacca
Hot, windy conditions that experts say can fuel dangerous wildfires have put much of Northern California in fire danger, with some communities bracing for power shutoffs meant to prevent such blazes from starting in the first place.
Firefighters remained in a heightened state of alert, as some 4 million people, including those in the East Bay Hills and Diablo Range, spent the day under a red flag warning.
At the center of it all was PG&E, the utility convicted of multiple felonies in the deadly San Bruno explosion and fire, now in bankruptcy proceedings after its role starting the massive Camp Fire led to billions in potential liability claims.
Even as one of the state’s biggest companies attempted to deal with the fallout from
those incidents, it sought to prevent another by taking a once unheard-of step and turning off the power.
“The main thing is that we have to wait for the weather,” PG&E spokeswoman Megan McFarland said Monday afternoon.
PG&E announced it was executing a Public Safety Power Shutoff beginning at 5 p.m. Monday that would cut off electricity service to 27,500 customers in three counties spanning the Sierra foothills. The move was in response to a heat wave that will scorch Northern California today and Wednesday.
Itwas not a decision the company took lightly, Mc-Farland said.
“This is completely about safety,” she said, adding that the company has a goal in such situations “to notify customers 48 hours in advance, so they have time to prepare.”
“I’m a customer, too,” she said. “I understand what it’s like to to have your power taken away.”
PG&E did not give its customers an estimate for when the customers affected in parts of Butte, Nevada and Yuba counties would be back up and running again. The peak fire danger was predicted to last through 9 a.m. today, the company said.
This shutdown comes four months after authorities announced that PG&E electrical lines caused November’s devastating Camp Fire, California’s deadliest and most destructive. It killed 85 people — one person is still missing — burned almost 240 square miles and devastated the town of Paradise.
PG&E notified customers in the two days leading up to the Nov. 8 blaze that it might shut down power but never did. This time, the company said it will take hours to get through the shutdowns that it has planned for parts of Butte, Nevada and Yuba counties.
“All I can tell you is that this is not a decision that was taken lightly,” McFarland said. Since California regulators in May approved PG&E’s strategy to turn off power to reduce risk of wildfire, the electric and gas company shut off power in Napa, Solano and Yolo counties earlier this summer. The Sierra foothills communities that are facing a power shut-off this week have also experienced the planned outage previously; in June, the utility company shut off power to Butte and Yuba counties. Both shutdowns lasted less than a day.
The East Bay Hills and Diablo Range are among several Bay Area regions under a red flag warning from weather authorities as temperatures are expected to peak and dry areas are vulnerable to fire. Also facing danger: the Santa Clara Valley, the Santa Cruz Mountains, north and south Monterey Bay and Big Sur coast, Salinas and the Carmel Valley.
“This is a good reminder that fire season is far from over,” said Steve Hill, a spokesman for the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District. “Last year it stretched into the first 10 days or so of November, and there is no indication so far, at least, that it will end any sooner.”
The expected power shutdown Monday was not as widespread as PG&E initially anticipated. The company originally believed that as many as 124,000 customers in nine counties in the Sierra foothills and the North Bay could lose service.
The fire danger is strengthened by offshore winds — breezes that move from inland toward the ocean, the opposite of California’s normal pattern. Winds were blowing up to 10 to 25 mph Monday depending on the location, according to the National Weather Service.
“When those winds go in reverse, it really dries things out. It’s basically desert air,” meteorologist Rick Canepa said. “This is the time of year where that pattern became much more dramatic, and it becomes a dangerous fire time.”
The weather service issued a heat advisory for a large swath of territory from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. today and Wednesday.
Parts of the hills around the East Bay and the Peninsula are considered “extreme” fire-threat areas, while other parts of the Bay Area have “elevated” fire risk, according to a map of fire risk areas from the state Public Utilities Commission.
PG&E has said those high-risk areas that have electric lines passing through are the areas where it would most likely have to shut off the power for safety.
Hill said that to prepare, his agency increases its staffing for weeks like this, when red flag warnings indicate a heightened risk for fire.
Leaders at the fire district also have had to consider how to prepare not just for fire but for a PG&E power shut-off in the Bay Area, which would involve fueling generators and creating plans to operate mobile units, Hill said.
A power shut-off would most affect places like critical care centers and senior care homes, Hill said.
Jason Belden, a disaster- preparation manager for the California Association of Health Facilities, which represents 1,300 skilled-nursing facilities and intermediate-care facilities, said that sustained outages can be devastating for facilities, mostly because without air conditioning, elderly patients can’t handle extreme temperature changes.
Belden works to help prepare facilities for outages. Facilities need to plan to have generators for lifesaving equipment such as oxygen and dialysis machines and find a way to keep buildings cool in extreme heat, he said.
This week’s outage is smaller than anticipated and will impact fewer facilities, he said.
A bill approved by the state legislature this month requires electric companies to have protocols in place to mitigate the public safety impact of power shut-offs and provide either backup electrical resources or financial assistance for backup electrical resources to certain low-income customers who need it.
Cities including Lafayette and Orinda have held planning meetings among city leaders to discuss buying generators, fuel for generators and other supplies in the event of a power shut-off by PG&E. The Lafayette City Council this summer approved spending up to $20,000 to rent a generator and buy a portable air conditioner to keep city services going.
The heat wave is expected to bring a peak fire risk today into Wednesday morning, officials said. PG&E has not yet said whether another shutdown will go into effect today. Staff writer Ethan Baron contributed to this report. Contact Rick Hurd at 925-945-4789 and Annie Sciacca at 925-943-8073.