PG&E slowly shuts off power to 800,000 customers in California

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PG&E potential outage map

Schools close across county
All Santa Rosa Junior College campuses will be closed Wednesday and all activities and classes, including online classes, are canceled.

Sonoma State University also canceled classes.


Seven Santa Rosa City Schools will be closed Wednesday because of the shut-off and will likely remain closed Thursday and Friday: Maria Carrillo High, Rincon Valley Middle, Santa Rosa Accelerated Charter School, Santa Rosa Middle, Hidden Valley Elementary, Proctor Terrace Elementary and Lewis Education Center. All after-school programs, such as athletics and childcare, will also be canceled at these schools.
Other schools within the district may also be closed Thursday and Friday, depending on the duration of the outage and possible increase in the affected area.


Alexander Valley — closed Wednesday and Thursday.
Bennett Valley Union School District, Cloverdale Unified School District, Cotati-Rohnert Park Unified School District, Kashia School District, Geyserville Unified School District, Old Adobe Union District’s Sonoma Mountain and Old Adobe charter schools — closed Wednesday.
Mark West Union School District and Windsor Unified School District — closed Wednesday with a projected closure Thursday.
Sonoma Valley Unified School District — closed Wednesday through Friday.
Waugh School District – closed Wednesday with non-student days Thursday and Friday.
Sonoma County Office of Education – Skylane campus closed Wednesday. Special education classes at school district sites will be closed along with district closures.
Parents are encouraged to go to their school or district website for the latest information.

In a historic move to avert another fiery disaster, PG&E is turning off power to as many as 800,000 customers in Northern and Central California Wednesday, prompting residents, schools, businesses and local officials to make hurried plans to cope without electricity possibly for several days.

With wind speeds expected between 40 mph and 70 mph over sunbaked land Wednesday and Thursday, the state’s largest utility opted to preemptively cut power in parts of 34 counties, including Sonoma, Marin, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties in the North Bay.

PG&E, driven into bankruptcy in January facing about $30 billion in liabilities for wildfires in 2017 and 2018, adopted temporary power shut-offs as a key part of its fire prevention plan. A majority of those catastrophic blazes two years ago as well as the Camp fire in 2018 were attributed to the company’s equipment.

About 66,000 of the utility’s Sonoma County customers will lose power, which equates to about 262,000 residents. Of that total, there will be 24,000 Santa Rosa customers affected, including an estimated 72,000 residents, a city official said Tuesday.

With many PG&E customer accounts serving more than one person, the planned outage could affect well over 1 million people. The utility plans to cut power in two stages, the first early Wednesday morning before sunrise and the second between noon and 5 p.m.

Much of eastern and northern Sonoma County, including parts of Santa Rosa, Sonoma, Petaluma, Rohnert Park, Windsor, Healdsburg, Cotati and Cloverdale, are expected to be included in the shutdown, according to PG&E maps.

The utility is expected to start restoring power Thursday around noon and it could take five days to complete that process. Densely populated parts of the county could have power restored within 48 hours.

For thousands of residents, Tuesday’s news of the impending power outage was an eerie reminder of the catastrophe that struck exactly two years ago, when the 2017 North Bay wildfires killed 40 people and destroyed nearly 6,200 homes.

Christine Ratliff, a leader of a Larkfield neighborhood’s campaign to replant the trees lost to the Tubbs conflagration, spoke with an almost matter-of-fact voice of the expected widespread power shut-off.

“You hear that this is going to happen, and you look outside and say, ‘It’s so nice; it’s not even windy.’ You think, ‘Are they just overreacting?’” Ratliff said. “I would hope they wouldn’t be doing this unless it was absolutely necessary, especially such a large area.”

The planned outage will be the largest in Northern California’s history, said Chris Godley, Sonoma County’s emergency management director.

“Today, we need to step up,” Godley said Tuesday. “Check on your neighbors. Step out of your comfort zone. Go find somebody and make sure they’re going to be OK. Government can only do so much. The real resource (is) our people.”

Ratliff’s kindergartner will be off school Wednesday, one of the thousands of local students who won’t go to class because many schools in the Santa Rosa area, Sonoma Valley, Cloverdale and Rohnert Park will be closed. Also, Santa Rosa Junior College and Sonoma State University canceled classes.

Beverly Nystrom, 85, is living in a Santa Rosa condominium while her new Larkfield home is built.

PG&E potential outage map

Schools close across county
All Santa Rosa Junior College campuses will be closed Wednesday and all activities and classes, including online classes, are canceled.

Sonoma State University also canceled classes.


Seven Santa Rosa City Schools will be closed Wednesday because of the shut-off and will likely remain closed Thursday and Friday: Maria Carrillo High, Rincon Valley Middle, Santa Rosa Accelerated Charter School, Santa Rosa Middle, Hidden Valley Elementary, Proctor Terrace Elementary and Lewis Education Center. All after-school programs, such as athletics and childcare, will also be canceled at these schools.
Other schools within the district may also be closed Thursday and Friday, depending on the duration of the outage and possible increase in the affected area.


Alexander Valley — closed Wednesday and Thursday.
Bennett Valley Union School District, Cloverdale Unified School District, Cotati-Rohnert Park Unified School District, Kashia School District, Geyserville Unified School District, Old Adobe Union District’s Sonoma Mountain and Old Adobe charter schools — closed Wednesday.
Mark West Union School District and Windsor Unified School District — closed Wednesday with a projected closure Thursday.
Sonoma Valley Unified School District — closed Wednesday through Friday.
Waugh School District – closed Wednesday with non-student days Thursday and Friday.
Sonoma County Office of Education – Skylane campus closed Wednesday. Special education classes at school district sites will be closed along with district closures.
Parents are encouraged to go to their school or district website for the latest information.

Nystrom wasn’t aware she might lose power at her condo, but didn’t seem too concerned. A self-described farm girl, she had no electricity at home until she graduated from high school.

“So I know have to survive,” she said, before adding about PG&E: “They still need to have a better solution.”

As many of its anxious utility customers scrambled Tuesday to fill up their cars with gas, buy nonperishable foods at supermarkets, get cash from ATMs and otherwise prepare for the outage, PG&E officials sought to reassure them of the need for the shut-off.

Michael Lewis, PG&E’s senior vice president of electric operations, said in a statement that the “safety of our customers and the communities we serve is our most important responsibility, which is why PG&E has decided to turn power off to customers during this widespread, severe wind event.

“We understand the effects this event will have on our customers and appreciate the public’s patience as we do what is necessary to keep our communities safe and reduce the risk of wildfire,” Lewis said.

In Santa Rosa, PG&E is offering restrooms, bottled water and a recharging area for electronic devices at the Veterans Memorial Building, 1351 Maple Ave.

Meanwhile, Godley said local hospitals and health care systems will prioritize essential functions, with plans to curtail all elective surgeries and normal office visits.

The power shut-offs will force the closure of three Santa Rosa Community Health clinics, including two of the nonprofit’s largest clinics: the Vista Campus, 3569 Round Barn Circle; the Dutton Campus, 1300 North Dutton Ave.; and the Brookwood Campus, 983 Sonoma Ave.

The three campuses decided to close because they only have enough backup power for refrigerators where vaccines and other drugs are kept.

Godley said the Sonoma County Jail will perform essential functions using generators. If the shut-off goes beyond 48 to 72 hours, inmates may have to be relocated.

County officials are concerned about 911 phone access for residents, particularly those who don’t have landline phones, which are more resilient during power outages.

“After four, six, eight hours, cell towers will begin to drop off,” Godley said. “Only old-fashioned phones will work, and less than 2% of the county has those phones.”

He compared the anticipated effects of PG&E’s outage with a Southern California outage in 2011 and the power grid failures of the 1970s.

“People will be inconvenienced immediately. Alarm clocks won’t go off,” Godley said. “Maybe the lights don’t come on, as well.”

Most grocery stores “might keep the lights on, but the freezer aisle’s going to be a pretty wet mess,” he said.

The Safeway store and gas station on Fourth Street in Santa Rosa were crowded Tuesday afternoon, with lines at the ATM and gasoline pumps, and the adjacent CVS drugstore was out of ice.

Karen Varner of Santa Rosa, who has to travel for her job, was waiting to fill her tank in preparation for the blackout.

“Of course it worries me,” she said. “(But) I think the community has done a great job preparing us, letting us know that this is going to happen.”

Liz Byers of Santa was stocking up on emergency supplies, including batteries at the CVS store. She called the shut-off a “hardship,” especially for people without generators or unable to work without power.

“I know it’s preventative, but it does trigger a lot of anxiety,” she said. “We all remember the fires, and we question our preparedness.”

Santa Rosan Mark Walters said he thought the whole thing could have been avoided.

“I think this is another burden that PG&E is placing on its customers and communities,” he said.

Major cellphone service providers have said they will use backup power sources, including batteries and generators, to keep their North Bay cell sites operating. However, their ability to service cell towers largely relies on accessing the sites, which could be compromised by inclement weather or emergency conditions.

Sonoma County Transit and the Santa Rosa CityBus will continue to operate on their regular schedules Wednesday, but advised customers that trips may be delayed because of traffic signal outages throughout the county.

SMART plans to continue its regular weekday train schedule, including stops at stations without power, but said passengers should expect delays.

Although Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport falls within PG&E’s planned outage area, a generator will power main operations and commercial flights are expected to continue as scheduled. Airport security will shift to manual screenings so passengers are encouraged to arrive to the airport early for their flights.

Individual airlines may choose to cancel flights, county spokeswoman Maggie Fleming said, advising passengers to check with their carriers before heading to the local airport Wednesday.

Golden Gate Ferry, Golden Gate Transit and the Golden Gate Bridge are expected to operate public transit services Wednesday with generators.

In 2018, PG&E started using planned power shut-offs, turning off distribution lines in an attempt to prevent wildfires. This year the utility significantly expanded the fire-prevention tactic to include powering down the larger transmission lines that carry electricity across the state.

Each time PG&E conducts a planned outage, it must file a report with the California Public Utilities Commission.

California investor-owned utilities like PG&E can use preemptive power cuts if necessary to help ensure the safety of their customers, California Public Utilities Commission spokeswoman Terrie Prosper said.

“The utilities can exercise this authority during severe wildfire threat conditions as a preventative measure of last resort,” Prosper said.

Staff Writers Tyler Silvy, Randi Rossmann and Kevin Fixler contributed reporting. You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner. You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports. You can reach Staff Writer Chantelle Lee at 707-521-5337 or chantelle.lee@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ChantelleHLee.

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