Winds pick up as PG&E shutoff enters second day
About 2 million Northern Californians - including 2 in 5 Sonoma County residents - braced for a second day without power, after they were plunged into darkness early Wednesday because of heightened wildfire risk, part of an unprecedented shutdown across nearly three dozen counties. The sweeping outage cut electricity to about 66,000 PG&E customers in large swaths of Sonoma County as part of a preemptive move in anticipation of strong winds not seen since the 2017 North Bay firestorm that destroyed thousands of homes and killed ?24 people in Sonoma County exactly two years earlier.
The shutdown, mostly in the northern part of the county and east of Highway 101, was rolled out in the dark hours of Wednesday morning and could linger in some areas for several days. It spread through the county hour-by-hour much the way of catastrophic wildfires that razed whole neighborhoods Oct. 9, 2017.
Though the cause of the most violent blaze, the Tubbs fire, remains in dispute, the remaining 2017 fires as well as last year’s deadly Camp fire in Butte County were linked to damaged power equipment owned by PG&E, now mired in civil litigation and bankruptcy proceedings. The totality helped spur the company’s adoption of preemptive shutdowns similar to those long used in Southern California during periods of high winds.
While many affected residents were sympathetic to the idea of cutting power to reduce wildfire risk, some questioned the timing of the shut-offs.
Howard Klepper, 70, of the Glen Ellen area said his power went out at about 12:50 a.m. Wednesday. He was skeptical of the timing, given that he wasn’t experiencing strong winds or exceptionally low humidity.
“I’m just sitting here wondering why PG&E turned off our power so far ahead of any need for it,” said Klepper, a retired guitar-maker who lost his home and shop in the Nuns fire of 2017. He acknowledged the possibility that an outage could prevent similar catastrophic fires, “but conditions were much more severe then than they are now.”
“I understand that PG&E would rather be safe and err on the side of caution, but how much so, and are they calibrated right?” he said. “There’s an appropriate amount of caution, and I think they’ve exceeded it.”
PG&E and local government officials defended the utility’s decision, saying such a large, coordinated shutoff required early action affecting large numbers of customers.
“We understand the impact that turning (off) power has on our customers and our communities,” Sumeet Singh, vice president of PG&E’s Community Wildfire Safety Program, said during a news conference Thursday evening. “This is not a decision we take lightly, and we thank our customers and our communities for your patience.”
In Sonoma County, the shutdown affected areas of Cloverdale, Windsor and Rohnert Park, cutting power to 26,431 customers in Santa Rosa, which was hardest hit, 16,000 in the Sonoma Valley and 4,459 in Petaluma.
All were included in the first phase of the shutdown affecting about 513,000 households and businesses in 22 California counties, including Mendocino, Lake, Napa and Marin. An additional 200,000 customers in 12 counties were to be part of a second phase of shutdown scheduled for late Wednesday.
In Sonoma County, school was to be canceled for a second day Thursday at several dozen Sonoma County campuses, and all Santa Rosa Junior College sites were closed, as well. Sonoma State University has canceled classes for the remainder of the week.
Business owners were forced to improvise or close for the duration. Motorists were left to negotiate busy intersections without signal lights, resulting in several minor injury crashes around Santa Rosa, police said.
Residents in areas without power grudgingly adjusted to deprivations imposed on them in the name of public safety, including occasionally unreliable cellphone service as wireless carriers worked to keep their equipment up and running.
But with the first of what’s expected to be several more unplugged days ahead stretching out still and temperate inside the outage zone, some people wondered aloud about the timing and necessity of PG&E’s measures.
State Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, was among public officials criticizing PG&E, in part for shutting the power down prematurely. He called the situation “beyond frustrating” in a statement released Wednesday.
“Public safety power shutoffs have a role to play when they’re needed to prevent massive wildfires and the huge human and economic costs we’ve seen in recent years,” Dodd said. “However, many of my constituents are disturbed that the power was shut down before the winds started to pick up in the North Bay.”