Nearly 40,000 Sonoma County customers could be affected by possible PG&E outage
PG&E warned it could shut off power this week in Sonoma County for the sixth time in two months to prevent its equipment from sparking a wildfire, a practice that has set fire-prone Northern California on edge.
The state's largest power company began sending notices Monday to more than 303,000 customers in 25 counties, including nearly 40,000 in Sonoma County, warning that it may start shutting off portions of its electrical grid on Wednesday morning during another period of windy, dangerous fire weather.
PG&E said the outage would impact a broad swath of Sonoma County from Cloverdale south to the town of Sonoma, mostly east of Highway 101; along the coast from Bodega Bay to Gualala; and along the Russian River from Forestville to Jenner.
The blackout could affect 140,849 people, or more than a quarter of the county's population, based on mapping and census data, according to Permit Sonoma, the county's planning agency.
“Here we go again,” said David Rabbitt, chairman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. “The shutdowns have proven to be horribly impactful, but not as horribly impactful as wildfire.”
The Kincade fire, which erupted in the hills east of Geyserville last month and scorched 120 square miles before it was fully contained two weeks ago, may have been caused by a malfunction on a PG&E transmission line that was not deactivated, Rabbitt said.
PG&E has been faulted for most of the deadly and destructive wildfires in Northern California in 2017 and 2018. Now in bankruptcy facing billions of dollars in wildfire liabilities, the utility has adopted preventive shut-offs as a defense against more conflagrations.
The shut-offs have prompted harsh criticism from state and local officials.
“PG&E has failed us too many times. All options need to be studied and on the table - including breaking up the utility,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, who participated in a legislative hearing on the shut-offs Monday.
State Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, who also attended the hearing in Sacramento, said he hoped PG&E “recognizes what they've put people through time and time again. This could cause PTSD for people,” referring to the traumatic stress disorder suffered by war veterans.
Sonoma County officials have commissioned a study on the economic impact of the blackouts, which have forced local business owners to shut down and send workers home without pay.
Debbie McCormick, owner of Sunnyside Cottage in the Montecito Shopping Center, said she lost seven days of business during outages in October that cost her about $10,000 in sales at her gift, toys and home decor shop. Unable to pay her employees when the shop is closed, McCormick said the economic hit “trickles down” from business owners into the community. She has not come up with a plan for dealing with blackouts.
“I wasn't expecting to have to figure it out so quickly,” she said. “I was hoping we'd seen the last of them.”
Dry, windy weather returning to Northern California will create high-risk fire conditions that start early Wednesday morning and last into Thursday, PG&E said in a press release Monday. “Worsening dry conditions and expected high wind gusts pose an increased risk of damage and sparks on the electric system that have the potential to ignite fires in areas with dry vegetation,” the company said.
The National Weather Service has issued a red flag fire warning for the North Bay and East Bay hills from 4 a.m. Wednesday through 7 a.m. Thursday, noting that it will not be “anywhere as strong” as the warning in late October that preceded the Kincade fire, the largest in Sonoma County history.
North winds are expected to gust from 35 to 45 mph in the hills, especially late Wednesday, and possibly exceed 60 mph over Mount St. Helena, the forecast said.
Notices 48 hours in advance of the potential shut-off were sent Monday to more than 91,000 customers in five North Bay counties: Sonoma (39,940 customers), Marin (23,440), Lake (13,700), Napa (11,180) and Mendocino (3,080).
Notices were also sent to 212,000 customers in 20 other Northern California counties: Alameda, Amador, Butte, Colusa, Contra Costa, El Dorado, Glenn, Nevada, Placer, Plumas, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Shasta, Sierra, Solano, Tehama, Trinity, Yolo and Yuba counties.
Notifications will also be issued 24 hours and four hours prior to the shut-off.
Customers can use an online address tool - www.pge.com/pspsupdates - to find out if their property may be included in the shut-off.
PG&E said it expects the high winds to subside at mid-morning Thursday. It will then begin inspecting the deenergized lines, with the goal of restoring power to most customers by the end of the day.
The utility has cut power to customers five times in Sonoma County since Sept. 25.
You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @guykovner.