Pacific Gas and Electric Co. said late Saturday it may shut off power to parts of Northern California in the next 48 hours to “help reduce the risk of wildfire,” potentially affecting customers along the Sierra foothills from Butte County to El Dorado County.
The Public Safety Power Shutoff advisory was given hours after the National Weather Service issued a fire weather watch for the northern Sacramento Valley. On Sunday, the weather service upgraded the advisory to a red flag warning, effective 11 p.m. Monday to 11 a.m. Wednesday affecting a wide swath of Northern California, including the entire Sacramento Valley, Sierra foothills and the North Bay.
Customers may be affected in six counties — Butte, El Dorado, Nevada, Placer, Sutter and Yuba. Spokeswoman Karly Hernandez said that as many as 67,000 customers could be affected as early as Monday evening, though the figures could change before Monday based on forecast models. The company’s wildfire center will “adjust accordingly” precisely how many ratepayers could be taken offline, she said.
This year, PG&E has been working to install 600 weather stations and 100 cameras in high fire-threat areas to help it make decisions in such cases.
Building high pressure will bring breezy conditions to the Valley and Sierra foothills, according to the weather service. Warmer north and northeasterly winds, coupled with lower humidity and dry vegetation, creates a high potential for wildfires. Sunday’s red flag warning also covered areas west of the Sacramento Valley, including Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties, and the foothills southeast of the capital region, Amador, Calaveras and Tuolumne counties including the Stanislaus National Forest.
Winds are forecast to range from 10 to 30 mph across Northern California with gusts as high as 40 mph on the Valley floor and 50 mph in some canyons in the foothills, the weather service said. Humidity levels could be as low as 10% in some spots below 5,000 feet. The highest threat, the agency said, would be during the “night and morning hours, especially over ridges and through favorably oriented canyons, when winds will be the strongest.” Lake wind advisories are also in effect around the Tahoe region.
PG&E says it will send notifications of the potential shutoffs via texts, phone calls and emails ahead of any interruption in service. In previous shutoff scenarios, PG&E says it will make a decision on which, if any, areas to turn off power and notify affected customers.
“The safety of our customers and the communities we serve is PG&E’s top priority,” Sumeet Singh, PG&E vice president of the Community Wildfire Safety Program, said in prepared remarks. “We ... would only consider temporarily turning off power in the interest of safety when gusty winds and dry conditions, combined with a heightened fire risk, threaten a portion of the electric system serving your community.”
A year ago, PG&E began implementing shutoffs to stem the potential for fires caused by its power equipment. In October 2018, power was cut pre-emptively for nearly 50,000 in portions of the foothills west of Sacramento and in the Napa and Sonoma valleys.
Power was not cut in the case of the Camp Fire one month later. That fire, caused by a faulty transmission line, killed 86 people in and around Paradise in Butte County and was the deadliest and most destructive in California history. The fallout from the fire has forced the utility into bankruptcy as it works to pay wildfire liabilities in what’s likely a protracted tug-of-war between wildfire victims, insurance companies and other creditors over the future of the state’s largest utility.
Earlier this month PG&E offered $16.9 billion to pay wildfire liabilities, on top of $1 billion previously offered to local governments affected by the 2017 and 2018 fires, for a total of $17.9 billion. Under that plan, PG&E would have paid $8.5 billion to insurers and $8.4 billion to fire victims for uninsured losses.
In addition to the six counties under the shutoff advisory, according to the company’s “weather awareness” website, customers on the west side of the Sacramento Valley – as well as the North Bay counties of Napa, Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino counties – face “elevated” fire risk during the same 72-hour window beginning Monday.
Parts of Northern California above Redding face “elevated” risk on Wednesday, according to the utility’s forecasters. An elevated threat triggers closer monitoring by PG&E for the potential for a shutoff event, according to its website.
Customers in the affected areas should have an emergency kit with flashlights, fresh batteries, first aid supplies and cash, PG&E says. Do not use candles; they increase the risk of fire.
Residents should also have some form of backup charging methods for phones and should keep hard copies of emergency numbers. The utility company advises making sure smoke alarms and fire extinguishers are ready, and that emergency food and water are on hand.