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PG&E considers another power outage for North Bay but will its system fixes be ready?

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Preparing For Planned Outages

Make sure PG&E has your current contact information by going to www.pge.com or calling 1-800-743-5000.

Get local emergency alerts: Go to SoCoAlert.com or call 866-939-0911, press "0" at the menu and ask the operator for assistance in registering.

Learn how to prepare for power outages by going to www.ready.gov/power-outages.

For a list of resources to help in planning for disaster go to pressdemocrat.com/prepare.

For the second time in October, Sonoma County residents and businesses face the prospect of PG&E leaving them in the dark as the utility considers cutting power to reduce fire risks expected to escalate later this week.

The potential electric shut-off, aimed at averting wildfires sparked by PG&E equipment, could affect about 33,600 county customers, half as many as the number included in the blackout two weeks ago.

Overall, PG&E said Monday the potential outage could affect more than 200,000 customers in 16 counties, spanning the North Bay and the Sierra foothills due to expected hot, dry and windy conditions.

Utility officials said a final decision on whether to pull the plug again would be made Wednesday morning, barring a major change in the predicted “critical fire weather conditions” expected to develop Wednesday or Thursday. Customer notifications began Monday afternoon about the potential for another temporary blackout.

Meanwhile, PG&E’s preemptive shut-off earlier this month affected more than 700,000 Northern and Central California customers and prompted harsh criticism from local officials up to Gov. Gavin Newsom.

“It was clear from the start that PG&E implemented this extraordinary measure with astounding neglect and lack of preparation,” Newsom said after the previous blackout calling its scope and duration “unacceptable.”

State Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, said Monday he had “no reason to believe that PG&E has any more competence to do this than they did two weeks ago.”

Pacific Gas & Electric Co. officials have acknowledged shortcomings in their response to the previous shut-off, but also said they achieved the goal of preventing the utility’s power equipment igniting infernos. During inspections before restoring power earlier this month, PG&E crews found more than 100 instances of equipment damage and hazards due to high winds, utility officials said.

Last year, PG&E started implementing the planned power outages after fire investigators found the utility’s equipment sparked most of the deadly and destructive wildfires in Northern California in 2017 and 2018. Under the weight of an estimated $30 billion in liabilities from those fires, PG&E sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection from creditors in January and made preemptive power cuts a key part of its expanded fire-prevention efforts.

Responding to complaints that its website repeatedly crashed during the runup to the recent power shutdown, utility officials said customers visiting pge.com this week will be redirected to a “strength-tested” temporary website that will include a power shut-off address lookup and community resource center sites providing certain essentials during a blackout.

PG&E will open the centers throughout areas affected and locations will be posted on pgealerts.com as plans evolve, utility spokeswoman Deanna Contreras said Monday. Centers will provide restrooms, bottled water, electronic device charging and air conditioning.

On Monday, the National Weather Service issued a fire weather watch for the North Bay and East Bay hills beginning Wednesday afternoon. From a risk standpoint, that’s a notch below a red flag warning, one of the criteria PG&E uses to decide if a power shut-off is warranted.

Santa Rosa is expected to hit 87 degrees Tuesday and Wednesday, bumping up to 91 on Thursday. That’s scorching for late October, since a typical Santa Rosa afternoon this time of year is about 70 degrees, said Roger Gass, a National Weather Service meteorologist.

Dry winds from the north-northeast are expected Wednesday afternoon into Thursday of about 15 to 25 mph in the Sonoma County hills. At the highest elevations, such as neighboring Mount St. Helena, gusts could reach 60 mph, Gass said.

Preparing For Planned Outages

Make sure PG&E has your current contact information by going to www.pge.com or calling 1-800-743-5000.

Get local emergency alerts: Go to SoCoAlert.com or call 866-939-0911, press "0" at the menu and ask the operator for assistance in registering.

Learn how to prepare for power outages by going to www.ready.gov/power-outages.

For a list of resources to help in planning for disaster go to pressdemocrat.com/prepare.

“If conditions warrant, as we get closer, we would then most likely issue a red flag warning,” he said.

PG&E, the state’s largest utility, opened its emergency operations center Sunday night, and utility officials said they’d continue to monitor the weather. The forecast Monday called for wind gusts in the Sierra foothills on Wednesday or early Thursday possibly exceeding 55 mph and gusts up to 35 to 45 mph in the North Bay hills.

Bill Johnson, CEO of PG&E, said Monday that the increased frequency of dangerous weather conducive to fires in its Northern and Central California service territory is the “new reality” for the utility.

“We don’t want to turn off the power, but if we have to do so, we want to help people stay safe,” Johnson told reporters during a press conference.

Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore, whose North County district once again is targeted for an expansive outage, faulted PG&E for lack of transparency and collaboration with local officials.

“We’re going to continue to demand better information, better partnership,” he said.

In Sonoma County, the shut-off could include customers in Santa Rosa, Windsor, Larkfield, Fulton, Healdsburg, Geyserville, Cloverdale, Kenwood, Sonoma, Guerneville, Glen Ellen, Annapolis and Boyes Hot Springs, PG&E said.

In an effort to improve coordination and communication with cities and counties, PG&E has established a “single point of contact” for each county.

“Talk is cheap,” state Sen. Mike McGuire said. “We want to see action.”

Paul Lowenthal, Santa Rosa’s assistant fire marshal, said when PG&E’s website crashed during the previous shut-off that “created a lot of confusion for us,” noting he had been told the new site would handle twice the volume of users that tried to get critical blackout information two weeks ago.

Santa Rosa will open its emergency operations center Tuesday morning, as another power cut looms.

However, Sonoma County will wait until PG&E issues an official notification of the shut-off before opening its emergency operations center, Gore said. That step puts a strain on county operations, the supervisor said, because the center must be staffed by department heads who have the authority to make major decisions.

Santa Rosa Mayor Tom Schwedhelm said he hoped PG&E has made improvements because the utility failed to provide “timely and accurate information” to help the city cope with the previous outage.

A Coffey Park resident, the mayor said he shared the frustration of many residents with PG&E’s incorrect public information about that blackout during the second week of October. For example, his neighborhood appeared on the utility’s outage map but did not lose power, and while City Hall was dark the lights were on across the street at the city annex building.

“We fell short on several areas of execution” that affected millions of people, Contreras said Monday of the earlier power shut-off, reiterating comments PG&E officials expressed Friday before the California Public Utilities Commission.

Staff Writer Chantelle Lee contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner. You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 707‑521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com.

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