Winds pick up as PG&E shutoff enters second day

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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.”

PG&E representatives said a deliberate, step-by-step approach to de-energizing lines ahead of anticipated winds was necessary given their inability to forecast with exact timing, and said connected circuitry makes it impossible to cut power surgically only in areas where wind gusts would hit.

National Weather Service, Cal Fire and other fire agencies also echoed PG&E’s predictions for severe fire weather overnight. By 9:10 p.m. Wednesday, winds had picked up at higher elevations, with gusts up to 67 mph reported atop Mount St. Helena.

“These events historically are the events that cause the most destructive wildfires in California history,” Scott Strenfel, PG&E’s principal meteorologist. “… It’s a pretty serious situation.”

Local fire officials were concerned enough about conditions that they called in 120 extra firefighters and staged three dozen fire engines and water tenders around the county in preparation and were still planning late into the evening Wednesday for all possibilities.

Sonoma County Fire Chief Mark Heine said the message from the National Weather Service was clear: “Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security due to the lack of wind right now. A major wind event is still going to impact us with a very significant windstorm.”

Strenfel, with PG&E, said the hot, dry Diablo winds heading toward the North Bay were part of a “California-wide fire weather event” that on Wednesday swept down the Sacramento Valley, with gusts up to 50 mph reported in Redding. After reaching peak risk in the North Bay early Thursday, it was expected to recede Friday in the Tehachapi Mountains area of Kern County

In the North Bay, winds were forecast to subside around noon on Thursday, allowing PG&E to begin inspecting power lines and poles for wind damage before restoring energy to the equipment.

The utility has an army of crews at the ready to begin the work, as well as a fleet of helicopters, Singh said, but they can only work during daylight and would need time to assess and repair any damage.

It could be another few days before power is completely restored to affected customers, he said, adding, “We have an unwavering focus on minimizing that impact.”

Stanford University Senior Research Scholar Michael Wara, an expert on climate and energy policy, projected significant economic impacts from the statewide shutdown, however, depending on its duration and the degree to which commercial and industrial users are among those affected.

On Twitter, Wara said the biggest loss es would come from business interruption, and said they could run as high as $2.5 billion.

At Oakmont Village Market, owners Laura and Dave Arcado were trying to stem theirs, using a portable generator from their fifth-wheel camper to keep their store operating despite the darkened homes around them. In preparation for the power outage, they also had purchased about 200 pounds of dry ice to keep perishables cold.

Customers from the Oakmont community poured in all morning for coffee they couldn’t make at home and for sandwiches. Many thanked the couple for being open as they left.

“We probably sold over 300 cups of coffee,” Laura Arcado said, adding that the business was not insured for losses resulting from spoiled food.

“We’re not covered for anything,” she said. “Anything we lose, we lose.”

Staff Writers Chantelle Lee and Martin Espinoza contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com, Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 707‑521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com, and Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com.

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