Angry and tense, hundreds of thousands of Northern Californians braced for a historic PG&E electrical power grid shutdown slated to begin early Wednesday.
Residents in as many as 34 counties were expected to wake up without power Wednesday and more could lose it through the day as the utility company shuts down hundreds of miles of power lines to avoid triggering wildfires amid the strongest winds seen in two years.
“This is the measure of last resort,” Sumeet Singh, PG&E’s vice president of the community wildfire safety program, said late Tuesday. The utility said with certainty at a 7 p.m. news conference that about 500,000 customers across the north state would be plunged into an engineered blackout between midnight and 4 a.m.
The National Weather Service is forecasting sustained winds in many Northern California areas of 30 miles per hour with gusts beyond 50 mph in the mountains, which would be the highest winds the north state has experienced since the devastating fires that leveled portions of Sonoma and Napa counties in October 2017.
The shut-offs will start first in far northern areas of the state, like Redding, soon after midnight Wednesday, PG&E officials said, and will occur in stages in key danger areas during the day. Areas further south could be cut off as dangerous winds, including hot and dry Santa Anas, reach areas of Central California including Bakersfield.
If fully implemented, some 800,000 homes and businesses – 16 percent of PG&E’s 5 million customers – will be without power for up to five days, prompting worries among many who are reliant on electricity for health and basic needs. Hospitals and nursing homes will be running on generator power.
The utility company said it will set up 28 emergency community resource centers around the north state to be open during daylight hours only, offering restrooms, bottled water, charging stations and air-conditioned seating areas. PG&E has posted a power shutoff page on its website.
Officials from the utility said Tuesday night that even as red flag warnings expire, restoring power to some areas could take as many as five days with a “prioritized” approach.
Areas further south are bracing as well for high winds this week, and Southern California Edison said it may cut electricity to 106,000 customers in eight counties.
Sacramento, SMUD should keep power
Sacramento County, which is served by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, is not expected to suffer any outages. SMUD officials, however, will be monitoring their power lines in the foothills. A SMUD spokesman said those lines are designed to withstand the wind speeds expected in those areas.
“We’re not on high alert, but we’re monitoring,” SMUD spokesman Chris Capra said. “The news that other utilities are doing public safety shut-offs concerns us, and makes us watch a little more closely.”
The city of Roseville, which runs its own electric utility company, also is not part of the PG&E shut-off. City officials say they expect people from blacked out areas to come to Roseville hotels though.
Residents in many foothill areas east of Sacramento will be affected. That includes residents in some cities that are not considered high fire hazard areas, PG&E said. More than 100,000 customers could lose power in El Dorado, Placer and Yolo counties, including portions of Winters, Esparto, Woodland, Davis, Dunnigan and Zamora.
“It is very possible that customers may be affected by a power shut-off even though they are not experiencing extreme weather in their area,” PG&E spokeswoman Brandi Merlo said. “That is because the electric system relies on power lines working together across cities, counties and regions.”
PG&E officials say the electrical shut off will likely last in most areas for at least 24 hours after the National Weather Service ends its red flag wind alerts. Weather officials say winds are expected to die down at around noon or early afternoon on Thursday.
“We have to wait for the weather service ‘all clear’ before we send patrols out to inspect the lines and make necessary repairs and help with restoration,” Merlo said. “We have deployed 45 helicopters and more than 700 on the ground field personal.”
The outage is expected to be by far the largest purposeful power shut-down in PG&E’s history, dwarfing PG&E’s Oct. 14, 2018 shut-off, the biggest to date, when 59,000 customers in Lake and El Dorado counties lost power.
The pre-emptive action is part of a controversial new battle plan the agency, other utilities and the California Public Utilities Commission are employing after several years of massive wildfires, many of them caused by power line failures during high winds.
“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,” said Michael Lewis, PG&E’s senior vice president of Electric Operations. “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.”
PG&E and others have been sending alerts since Monday to residents, with advice about how to survive several days without electricity during what the utility calls a “public safety power shut-off.”
Cal Fire prepares
Cal Fire said it has called crews in and deployed them at key spots around the state, anticipating the higher potential for fire. Spokesman Scott McLean pointed out that PG&E’s dramatic shut down will reduce the chance of wildfire, but fires can ignite for many other reasons, many of them caused by humans.
“Someone mowing or parking in dry grass, something that creates a spark,” McLean said.
Cal Fire officials in previously fire-ravaged Napa, Sonoma and Lake counties will have helicopters in the air doing night reconnaissance, looking to catch any fires early.
The state Governor’s Office of Emergency Services has called law enforcement and other emergency responders to join it at the state command center in the Sacramento area to monitor the effects of the power shutdown.
“Because of the sheer size of this, it rises to the level of a significant incident,” OES spokesman Brian Ferguson.
In Butte County, which is still rebuilding nearly a year after last November’s devastating Camp Fire, emergency officials were warning residents to “Be Ready to Go!” ahead of Wednesday morning’s anticipated winds.
Despite emails, texts and automated calls, residents around the north state expressed uncertainty and anger about the last-minute warnings.
Notably, a balky PG&E website slowed Tuesday afternoon amid heavy traffic as residents sought information about when and where outages will start, adding to residents’ frustration, with commenters taking to the utility’s Facebook page to vent.
”They don’t get it on so many levels! This is more than an inconvenience, it is a life changing event,” Rosemary Driskill posted. “They take control of our household whenever they want, yet we still have to pay them, they ruin our food, they stop our TV, phone and internet yet we still have to pay those.
“They say they are doing this to save lives and property which they wouldn’t have to do if they would have done their job in the first place.”
Another page visitor, Erika Rust, was more succinct: “Once again, when it comes to public safety ... epic fail.”
In rural Yuba County, where large swaths are targeted for PG&E mandated blackouts, county Office of Emergency Services officials at noon Tuesday were still trying to pin down the utility on the scope of the outages.
”We were hoping that PG&E would specify/narrow their scope of which areas would be affected by the shutoff expected early (Wednesday), but it looks like they are keeping it broad,” the county’s Office of Emergency Services said in a post on its Facebook page.
PG&E and public health officials urge residents to think about what they need to sustain life and meet health care needs: Be sure you have water, nonperishable food and a first-aid kit on hand. Make a plan to keep insulin and other refrigerated medication cool. Know how to manually open garage doors and how to safely operate electric generators. If you aren’t well-versed in operating a generator, you risk being poisoned by carbon monoxide, shocked, electrocuted or burned.
Here are a few other things to consider: If pharmacies in your area close due to lack of power, do you have at least a week’s supply of medication on hand? Do you have battery chargers for medical equipment and cell phones, and are they charged? Do you have enough gas in your vehicle to drive an hour to get medical equipment or emergency medical services?
The University of California at Berkeley also advised people in power shut-off areas to charge their cell phones and other electronic devices before the power goes out. People can also charge their devices using the electricity from running cars and trucks.