PG&E ready to cut power to prevent fires in hot and dry conditions

With the onset of wildfire season, North Bay residents are bracing for the prospect of calamities along with a new concern: intentional blackouts aimed at preventing fires but also posing threats for people who are caught unprepared.

Hot, dry and windy conditions - the primary ingredients for devastating fires - are also the criteria for PG&E to preemptively shut off electricity in power lines running through areas at high risk of catching fire.

The embattled utility, driven into bankruptcy early this year by billions of dollars in liabilities for 17 Northern California wildfires that broke out in October 2017, has significantly augmented the public safety power shut-off program it launched in 2018, aimed at about 10% of its customers.

Pacific Gas & Electric Co. boosted the program this year to potentially disrupt ?31,000 miles of power lines in high-threat areas and all 5.4 million customers. People need to be prepared for blackouts lasting more than 48 hours, the utility is now warning in a major public outreach campaign.

Once a shutdown has been implemented, PG&E must wait until extreme weather has passed and the power lines have been visually inspected before restoring electricity.

“This is a bold move. We understand the impacts,” said Deanna Contreras, a PG&E spokeswoman. “It’s very difficult for our customers to be without power.”

The last two years, she said, “made it overwhelmingly clear that more must be done to address the threat of wildfires in extreme weather.”

About 16,500 fires scorched more than 3 million acres statewide in 2017 and 2018, claiming 146 lives and damaging or destroying more than 36,000 structures, according to Cal Fire.

Rick Barr of Santa Rosa gave the power shutdown program a hearty endorsement.

“If the power is on and you get 100 mile per hour winds whipping those lines around, it’d be real nice to have it turned off,” he said last week at an open house hosted by PG&E to promote its fire safety program.

Barr was essentially describing the conditions that propelled the Tubbs fire from Calistoga to Santa Rosa in four hours the night of Oct. 8, 2017. The inferno that killed 22 people and destroyed more than 4,600 houses stopped 150 feet from his home in the Mark West area.

“I’m scared to death of another fire,” said Karen Allen of Santa, also one of about 220 people who attended the open house at the Finley Community Center. “I think it’s a good time to be proactive.”

Allen lives a half block from Annadel State Park, part of a large swath of high fire-threat territory.

A retiree, she shrugged off the challenge of living without electricity for two days.

“To save our homes, you bet we can,” Allen said.

There are more than ?4,000 miles of power lines in high-risk fire areas in Sonoma, Lake, Napa and Mendocino counties, and more than half of PG&E’s 70,000-square-mile service area from Bakersfield to the Oregon border is in territory with an elevated or extreme fire threat.

In Sonoma County, there are nearly 1,500 miles of power lines in high-risk fire zones that cover the hilly areas outside of the Highway 101 corridor and Sonoma Valley, largely excluding the nine cities. High-risk zones in the Mayacamas Mountains and on Sonoma Mountain hug and intrude into Santa Rosa’s eastern flank.

Parts of the city could be included in a power outage, if they are served by a line that runs through a high-risk area, Contreras said.

PG&E, California’s largest utility, had no power shut-off program in 2017 and did not announce that it was developing one until March 2018, according to the California Public Utilities Commission, which sets the standards for shut-offs.

San Diego Gas & Electric pioneered shut-offs after its power lines ignited 2007’s Witch fire, which killed two people and destroyed 1,100 homes.

Chris Godley, Sonoma County’s emergency management director, said the agency is working on responses to the potential shutdowns, which will impact public services, including emergency response, as well as people’s lives.

A blackout affects traffic signals and could reduce water pressure, he said.

People may not be able to call 911, access the internet or buy gasoline for their cars, and a shutdown could be life-threatening to those who depend on power to operate medical devices or keep medicines refrigerated, Godley said.

“These deenergizing events may challenge us more than we care to admit,” he said. “We need to be ready to take care of ourselves and help others. It could be a very long summer.”

PG&E said conventional phones linked to copper lines generally operate during an outage, while internet telephone systems may be operational but won’t work if a customer’s router shuts off. Cellular phones may or may not have service depending on whether backup power is installed at cell sites.

Solar power systems do not work during a blackout unless they have a backup battery.

“We know how much our customers rely on electric service and that there are safety risks on both sides,” Contreras said. “We understand and appreciate that turning off the power affects first responders and the operation of critical facilities, communications systems and much more.”

In terms of notifying customers about shut-offs, PG&E intends to issue alerts 48 hours and 24 hours ahead of time and finally just before shutting off power, when possible.

Customers are advised to check and enter their email address, telephone and cellphone numbers enabling the utility to send alerts to all of them.

PG&E will use whatever contact information it has on file to reach customers, Contreras said.

When an alert has been issued, customers are advised to check and enter the location of their meter to get information on whether it will be affected by a shutdown.

PG&E has implemented two shutdowns so far this year, both on June 8:

Power to close to 21,000 customers in Butte and Yuba counties was turned off about ?9 p.m. and restored by 6 p.m. the following day.

A shutdown affecting about 1,700 customers in Napa, Solano and Yolo counties started at 6:15 a.m. with restoration at 6 p.m.

PG&E said it expects to turn off power “several” times this year, without being more specific.

The National Weather Service office that covers Sonoma to Monterey counties last year issued 10 red flag warnings of imminent fire threats, which are based on criteria similar to the utility’s power shut-offs.

Utilities have an obligation to provide safe and reliable service to their customers, including proactive power shutdowns, Terrie Prosper, a spokeswoman for the Public Utilities Commission said in an email.

Intentional blackouts should be a “preventative measure of last resort” if a utility thinks there is an “imminent and significant risk” of strong winds that may topple power lines, she said.

Michael Wara, a lawyer and Stanford University scholar who served on the state’s Commission on Catastrophic Wildfire Cost and Recovery, disputed the consideration of shut-offs as a “last resort.”

“It’s the solution we have now that can dramatically lower risk,” he said in an email. “That’s why utilities are pursuing it ­­now - because they have no other real options this year. And likely not for several more years.”

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or

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