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PG&E starts turning the lights back on for Sonoma County customers who were in the dark

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To see live power recovery status per North Bay city, go here

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To see a map of PG&E outages in the North Bay, go here

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To see a map of current winds in the North Bay, go here

At least 100 PG&E workers Thursday afternoon have fanned out across Sonoma County to inspect power lines and begin restoring electricity to about 66,000 customers.

At 4 p.m., certain customers in Santa Rosa already have the lights back on.

Sonoma County and its immediate neighbors are among 23 California counties PG&E cleared by Thursday afternoon for inspections to begin as the first step toward ending an unprecedented blackout launched early Wednesday morning as a preemptive effort amid forecast high winds and heightened fire danger.

It was unclear how many customers might have power restored by Thursday night, but Sonoma County Emergency Management Director Christopher Godley said reports were coming in of some neighborhoods already completed.

“We’re optimistic they can make significant progress this afternoon,” Godley said of PG&E. “They’ve been well organized and prepared to execute, so I’m hopeful they can knock it out.”

PG&E spokeswoman Megan McFarland said she could not estimate when all of the power would be back on for all users affected by the planned shutdown.

She said an army of 6,300 linemen had to visually inspect every mile of line, utilizing helicopters in some cases, but would isolate damaged areas so they could restore power elsewhere while repairs were made.

In all, more than 700,000 customers around Northern California were affected by the shutdown, though about 126,000 had power restored by Wednesday morning.

PG&E said there were reports of damaged equipment near Mount St. Helena, where the region’s most powerful winds passed through overnight Wednesday and Thursday morning, with gusts recorded as high as 77 mph around 4 a.m., National Weather Service meteorologist Spencer Tangen said.

Other high elevation areas between 1,000 and 3,000 feet saw gusts ranging from 30 mph to 50 mph, while the Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport saw peak gusts of 32 mph, though those strong winds were more sporadic, Tangen said.

“Not all valley locations saw gusts up to 30 (mph), so it was kind of hit or miss as to which gusts made it down to the valley floor,” he said.

3:20 p.m.

More than 49,000 students stayed home from Sonoma County schools and colleges Thursday, a consequence of the historic power shut-off initiated by California’s largest power utility on Wednesday, school officials said.

Classes were canceled for the 9,200 students who attend Sonoma State University, where instruction won’t begin again until Monday, university spokesman Paul Gullixson said. About 2,000 of the 3,000 students who live on the Rohnert Park campus sought housing elsewhere during the outage, he said.

Santa Rosa Junior College was shut down for a second straight day and officials were still deciding whether to remain closed Friday and early next week, said spokeswoman Erin Bricker. Almost 26,000 students are enrolled at the college.

Of Sonoma County’s 40 public school districts, 14 did not hold classes Thursday, said Jamie Hansen, a Sonoma County Office of Education spokeswoman. The move impacted an estimated 17,000 students, she said.

Only Sonoma Valley Unified School District confirmed it would remain closed for the rest of the week as of Thursday afternoon, Hansen said.

3:10 p.m.

PG&E has started to give crews across California the green light to fan out and restore service — but Sonoma County and the rest of the North Bay does not appear to be included.

To see live power recovery status per North Bay city, go here

_____

To see a map of PG&E outages in the North Bay, go here

_____

To see a map of current winds in the North Bay, go here

Crews will start to address outages affecting roughly 250,000 customers in parts of 14 counties including El Dorado, Santa Cruz, and Placer, PG&E said in a news release. The utility company has said it has more than 6,000 workers and more than 40 helicopters ready to inspect nearly 27,000 miles of power lines that have been turned off.

Some of those workers are in Sonoma County, but it was unclear when they would be cleared to inspect lines. It was also unclear why PG&E hadn’t started inspecting lines in places like Santa Rosa where strong winds were not a factor before proceeding to hillier regions.

A PG&E spokeswoman said she could not immediately address those questions.

1:20 p.m.

State Sen. Mike McGuire said he heard that PG&E is expected to begin power line inspections by 2 p.m. in parts of Sonoma, Lake, Mendocino and Marin counties. The inspections have to be done before the utility can start restoring power to affected customers in the North Bay.

Big chunks of PG&E customers in Humboldt and Trinity counties already have had their power restored, the Healdsburg Democrat said by phone during a brief break in his drive north toward Humboldt County. But, he said, the inspection and restoration process could be lengthy for some customers.

PG&E has “lacked the basic fundamentals to successfully execute” this outage, McGuire said of the largest planned electricity shut-off in California’s history. He said his top focus was ensuring that communities in his Northern California district had their needs met and their power restored as quickly as possible. Regarding how the utility handled this massive power cut, he said, “the time for accountability is coming in the weeks and months to come.”

11:10 a.m.

A top PG&E official on Thursday defended the planned outages that have continued to affect about 600,000 customer accounts in Northern and Central California, including about 200,000 Sonoma County residents.

“We faced a choice between hardship or safety, and we chose safety. We deeply apologize for the inconvenience and the hardship, but we stand by the decision because the safety of our customers and communities must come first,” Michael Lewis, senior vice president of electric operations said in a statement.

PG&E has begun inspection of its grid in some areas to allow for the restoration of electricity in parts of its coverage area, according to the utility’s statement. Power has been restored to about 126,000 customer accounts, but the utility has not provided specific details about where it planned to restore power Thursday.

More than 6,300 personnel and 45 helicopters are engaged in the effort to restore power, the company said.

The last of the planned outages was carried out Thursday morning in Kern County, affecting about 4,000 customers.

No fires related to PG&E equipment were reported in the outage zones, the company said.

10:25 a.m.

Marybel Batjer, president of the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates investor-owned utilities including PG&E, blasted the company’s handling of the shut-off as “absolutely unacceptable” at the CPUC’s monthly voting meeting Thursday morning in San Francisco.

“The impacts to individual communities, the individual people, the commerce of the state and the safety of our people has been less than exemplary,” Batjer said, adding, “We cannot it accept it as the new normal, and we won’t.”

9:40 a.m.

PG&E opened a second Sonoma County community resource center Thursday at the Hanna Boys Center in Sonoma. That location and one at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building parking lot, which launched Wednesday, opened at 8 a.m. Thursday and will remain open until 6 p.m., the utility said. Bottled water, phone charging stations and restrooms are available, according to PG&E.

9:30 a.m.

Crews have already begun safety patrols in Humboldt County and plans fan out to inspect thousands more miles of affected lines around noon Thursday, weather permitting, according to PG&E.

These patrols, bolstered by 6,300 on-the-ground personnel and 45 helicopters, will check for damage to electric infrastructure. They are necessary for re-energization and only will be conducted during the daytime.

PG&E has said it hopes to restore power in some areas in 24 to 48 hours. However, officials have acknowledged that it make take up to five days to fully restore power to all customers affected by the planned outage.

50,000 customers in the Sierra Foothills already have seen their lights come back on, and 60,000 to 80,000 customers could see their power return Thursday morning, the utility said late Wednesday in a news release.

PG&E could not immediately provide specific details Thursday on when the power would be restored in Sonoma, Lake, Mendocino and Napa counties; how long restoration would take in densely populated areas; or when it would announce any delay to its re-energization attempts.

PG&E’s online forecast continues to list an elevated possibility of a shut-off in the North Bay through Friday.

9:15 a.m.

Countywide strike teams and a task force in place for the red flag warning in the North Bay hills patrolled fire-prone areas overnight, though no significant fire activity broke out, said Sonoma County Fire Chief Mark Heine. Wind-related calls were minor, such as fallen tree branches, he said.

The strike teams, which augment the county’s firefighting services, will remain in tact until 8 a.m. Friday morning, though that timeline is flexible, Heine said.

“It won’t be shortened,” Heine said. “It could be extended based on weather conditions.”

Winds began to calm early Thursday and will continue to weaken throughout the day, Tangen said. The red flag warning is set to expire by 5 p.m., though humidity levels will stay low, dipping to 10 percent or less this afternoon, added. “That’s extremely dry,” Tangen said. “Almost all the moisture in the air will be removed at that point.”

Tens of thousands of Sonoma County residents remained without power Thursday morning, a day after PG&E initiated the unprecedented power shut off to reduce the risk of its power lines sparking a wildfire.

Staff Writer Kevin Fixler contributed reporting. You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com.

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