PG&E mulls massive power cut to Northern and Central California amid midweek fire weather
PG&E's largest planned power outage could coincide with the two-year anniversary of the North Bay wildfires as a weather forecast reminiscent of the October 2017 firestorm prompted utility officials to consider shutting off electricity Wednesday and Thursday in about 30 counties across Northern and Central California.
The unprecedented advisory, affecting millions of residents, includes the North Bay and appears to exempt only two counties in PG&E's service territory, Marin and San Francisco.
Sonoma County officials said the preemptive outage — now one of California's major fire-prevention strategies — could include nearly four out of 10 residents and might last several days. Across the North Bay, it could equate to more than 250,000 residents.
PG&E said Monday night that more than 600,000 account holders could be affected by the shut-off across Northern and Central California, including 66,289 customers in Sonoma County. About 26,430 customers could be affected in Lake County, 32,124 in Napa County and 6,000 in Mendocino County.
The county's Emergency Operations Center opened Monday as officials scrambled to prepare for a potentially massive outage, which Supervisor James Gore referred to as a 'secondary disaster.'
'If we're caught flatfooted people's lives are at risk,' he said. 'It feels more like living in tornado alley not just Sonoma County these days.'
Cal Fire Battalion Chief Marshall Turbeville said the prospect of winds over Mount St. Helena at 60 mph or more Wednesday night was reminiscent of the conditions two years ago that drove the Tubbs fire from Calistoga to Santa Rosa in four hours.
Firefighters can't stop the edge of a windblown wildfire that throws embers ahead as it grows hotter and moves faster, he said.
Winds typically peak at night, when people are sleeping, and a power outage would turn off street lights, traffic signals and some cellphone service — 'a whole new dynamic,' Turbeville said.
Cal Fire is staffing additional fire engines in Sonoma, Lake, Napa, Colusa, Solano and Yolo counties which are all on PG&E's list of potential power shut-offs. The agency is also mobilizing a heavy duty helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft at the Sonoma County airport, but no air drops can be made at night, Turbeville said.
For North Bay fire survivors, the timing of extraordinary fire warning carried particular significance, coming on the eve of the two-year anniversary marking the region's worst disaster on record.
Gena Jacob, a Larkfield resident who lost her home in the Tubbs fire, said she can't escape the horror of her experience two years ago.
'Even sunsets,' she said. 'I'll think of what I saw when I left my house — that orange glow. It automatically takes you back to that place.'
Jacob and her wife, Sheri, moved into their rebuilt home in August and are better prepared but still wary, especially after a small fire recently in the Mark West area prompted an all-out air and ground attack.
'We won't take any chances this time around,' Jacob said.
Weather forecasting and operations teams in PG&E's Emergency Operations Center in San Francisco were monitoring the ominous conditions — strong winds, low humidity and dry vegetation — expected Wednesday morning through Thursday afternoon, PG&E spokeswoman Deanna Contreras said in a statement.
Gore, the Sonoma County supervisor, said PG&E advised county officials that 32,000 to 66,000 customers in the county could be impacted by the shut-off, which Gore said amounts to 120,000 to 190,000 people, or nearly 40% of the county's population.
PG&E said Monday night that more than 20 communities in Sonoma County could be affected by the outage, including Santa Rosa, Sonoma, Petaluma, Healdsburg, Cloverdale, Glen Ellen, Penngrove, Geyserville, Kenwood, Rohnert Park, Windsor, Annapolis, Stewarts Point, Cotati, Cazadero, Guerneville, Larkfield, El Verano, Boyes Hot Springs, Fulton and Bodega Bay.
PG&E notified the Santa Rosa City Schools District on Monday afternoon that Maria Carrillo High, Rincon Valley Middle, Santa Rosa Middle, Hidden Valley Elementary, Proctor Terrace Elementary, Santa Rosa Accelerated Charter School and Lewis Education Center should all be on alert for a possible shut-off Wednesday through Friday. If power is shut off at the schools during the day Wednesday, classes will continue as usual, district officials said. But if the power is shut off before school begins, then the affected schools will be closed, they said. All after-school programs, such as athletics and childcare, would be canceled in the event of an outage.
The utility's notice coincided with a fire weather watch issued by the National Weather Service that includes the North Bay's hills and valleys from Tuesday evening through Thursday. The winds in the hills are expected to be the strongest of the fire season, according to the weather service, and when combined with warm and dry conditions, could lead to 'the strongest event since October 8th and 9th of 2017,' according to PG&E.