PG&E plans another massive power shut-off that could extend outage for North Bay customers to Wednesday
Hundreds of thousands of PG&E customers may have power restored only to see it cut again less than 24 hours later. Others will have their power shut-off stretch to nearly a week, according to a Sunday night announcement from the state’s largest energy provider.
The next planned outage, which is done to prevent the utility’s power lines from sparking wildfires during dry, windy conditions, would start between 8-9 a.m. Tuesday and run through 10 a.m. Wednesday, and would affect more than 500,000 customers statewide, including about 50,000 in Sonoma County.
The widespread shut-offs have been prompted by offshore heavy winds that have since Wednesday night fanned the flames of the Kincade fire, supercharging the blaze to more than 54,000 acres by Sunday night, with just 5% containment, according to Cal Fire.
PG&E equipment may have played a role in the start of the Kincade fire, as company officials have said they became aware of a problem on a 230-kilovolt transmission line within The Geysers just 6 minutes before firefighters were called at 9:26 p.m. Wednesday to a vegetation fire on John Kincade Road at Burned Mountain Road.
Since the company initiated its so-called public safety power shut-off program, it has executed eight such planned outages, with half coming in the past three weeks. Before the program’s existence, PG&E equipment sparked the majority of the large wildfires around the state in the fall of 2017, as well as the Camp fire that destroyed the town of Paradise in Butte County last year.
A Cal Fire investigation found that PG&E equipment did not cause the Tubbs fire, the most destructive of the 2017 North Bay wildfires. A group of wildfire survivors is challenging that finding in court.
Potential liabilities from the 2017 and 2018 fires helped force PG&E into bankruptcy.
The next shut-off will affect a little more than 500,000 customers, far fewer than the 965,000 customers impacted by the ongoing power shutdown. But the footprint in the North Bay is expected to be “nearly identical,” officials said.
During the current shutdown, 256,000 North Bay customers lost power, including 96,000 in Sonoma County.
That means some customers may see power restored Monday morning only to lose it again a day later. Others won’t have their power restored at all, PG&E officials announced during a media call Sunday night.
Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who represents the west county, said she’s concerned about residents who already have been without power losing months’ worth of food in deep freezers if the utility isn’t able to restore power even for 24 hours.
The Sunday night announcement came in the wake of the company’s decision to shut off natural gas to more than 23,000 northern Sonoma County customers near the fire, and the shut-offs could extend to northern Santa Rosa and Sebastopol.
The Tuesday planned shut-off is based on forecasts for more strong offshore winds, although this round won’t be as strong as the winds that helped force mass evacuations of nearly 200,000 Sonoma County residents in the path of the destructive Kincade fire.
The National Weather Service warned that additional offshore winds Tuesday night and Wednesday morning would be similar to the conditions in the middle of last week, bringing winds of 15 to 30 mph with gusts up to 45 mph across the Bay Area, with even higher gusts possible in higher elevations.
“These winds will again have the potential to blow down trees and power lines,” the weather service said in an advisory. “With minimal to no humidity recovery, fire weather conditions are expected.”
State Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, was on a tour of the evacuation shelter at the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds in Petaluma ahead of the PG&E announcement, and he said with high winds, the shutdowns make sense.
“It’s hard for me to be critical, particularly when we’re seeing what utility-caused fires … the damage and destruction that these fires can create,” Dodd said.
In the face of the ongoing disaster, Dodd said it’s important to continue to stress that PG&E invest in deferred maintenance so that widespread power shut-offs or utility-sparked wildfires don’t become part of the new normal.
“This has got to be Job 1, to have a utility with a culture of safety in the board room and in the executive suite,” Dodd said.
Power restoration for the current shutdown, which began in some far northern areas Sunday night and will gain speed Monday morning, could be hampered by damaged equipment.
Restoration efforts following the Oct. 9-11 shutdown revealed 120 instances of damage or hazards, and PG&E Chief Meteorologist Scott Strenfel said he expected to find more following the historic weekend windstorm.
PG&E’s Mark Quinlan, the incident manager for the current shut-off, said the company has bolstered its field worker ranks to more than 6,000 and will employ 44 helicopters and night patrol technology in an effort to restore power more quickly once weather conditions permit.
In addition, Quinlan said PG&E has requested 150 four-person construction crews to repair damaged equipment on the fly, and the company is seeking another 40 helicopters.
PG&E President Andy Vesey said the company is getting better in terms of communication and efficiency since the first outage of the month, when residents weren’t able to access the outage map on the company’s website.
That shut-off, which coincided with the two-year anniversary of the Tubbs fire, cut power to about 66,000 Sonoma County customers.
A smaller outage launched Wednesday affected about 27,000 customers in Sonoma County.
“Customers” is PG&E’s term for individual accounts. It includes businesses, single- and multi-family homes. More than two people live in the average Sonoma County household, so the number of people who lose power in these planned outages is substantially greater than the figures the utility provides.
Quinlan also promised the company would open 60 community resource centers, featuring power, Wi-Fi, water and food.
Many of the customers affected by the shut-off have already been ordered to evacuate their homes in the face of the surging Kincade fire.
Hopkins said the combination of raging wildfire and rolling blackouts is an ongoing danger.
“If they go without power for multiple days, they will very likely lose critical communication systems,” Hopkins said. “My concern is that the power shut-off limits our ability to communicate with residents in a time where the situation is dangerous and dynamic.”
Two Sonoma County Library branches will be open at 10 a.m. Monday.
The Petaluma and Rohnert Park branches have power, free Wi-Fi and device charging stations, according to a news release from the library.