USA – Pacific Gas and Electric’s power shutoff remained in effect Monday morning, affecting nearly 42,000 people in the Sierra foothills east of Sacramento, and nearly 60,000 people across Northern California.
Nearly a year ago, extremely high winds, blisteringly dry conditions and parched vegetation came together on an otherwise quiet Sunday to spark what would become the most destructive wildfire in California history.
While the conclusive cause of the Tubbs Fire that swept through Santa Rosa on Oct. 8, 2017, has not been made, the state’s dominant utility, Pacific Gas & Electric Co., vowed that it would take a pre-emptive approach to protect lives and property when the forecast and conditions reached a dangerous level.
Sunday was the first real test of that new philosophy.
PG&E, which provides electricity for 5.3 million households in California, began de-energizing power lines in foothill communities east of Sacramento at 8:48 p.m. due to high fire risk, according to the company, affecting about 42,000 customers in the following areas:
El Dorado County: Aukum, Camino, Coloma, Cool, Diamond Springs, El Dorado, Fair Play, Garden Valley, Georgetown, Greenwood, Grizzly Flats, Kelsey, Kyburz, Mount Aukum, Omo Ranch, Pacific House, Placerville, Pollock Pines, Shingle Springs, Silver Fork, Somerset, Strawberry, Twin Bridges
Amador County: Fiddletown, Jackson, Pine Grove, Pioneer, Plymouth, Sutter Creek, Volcano
Calaveras County: Glencoe, Mokelumne Hill, Mountain Ranch, Rail Road Flat, West Point, Wilseyville
The first to be taken down in the controlled outage were portions of Lake, Napa and Sonoma counties. At of 8 p.m., 17,483 were disconnected in the following areas:
Lake County: Clearlake, Clearlake Oaks, Clearlake Park, Cobb, Finley, Hidden Valley Lake, Kelseyville, Lakeport, Lower Lake, Middletown
Napa County: Angwin, Calistoga, Deer Park, Lake Berryessa, Napa, Pope Valley, Saint Helena
Sonoma County: Unincorporated areas northeast of Santa Rosa
Customers in the affected areas were notified directly, the company said, adding it urged ratepayers to update their contact information at pge.com/mywildfirealerts.
“We know how much our customers rely on electric service, and we are temporarily turning off the power only in the interest of safety, and as a last resort due to the extreme weather conditions,” PG&E said.
By morning, more than 87,000 households across Northern California could be affected, PG&E said. Other service areas that could be turned off through the night are:
Butte County: Berry Creek, Brush Creek, Clipper Mills, Feather Falls, Forbestown, Oroville
Nevada County: Chicago Park, Grass Valley, Nevada City, North San Juan, Penn Valley, Rough and Ready, Soda Springs, Washington
The disruption has already affected residents beyond the lights being off. Late Sunday, the El Dorado Union High School District said it canceled Monday’s classes because of the controlled outage, affecting more than 6,600 students and 500 teachers and classified staff. Other schools that will be closed include Placerville Union, Mother Lode Union and Gold Trail Union school districts.
In addition to the lines being powered down, PG&E spokeswoman Andrea Menniti said the utility would turn off reclosers, devices that try to restore power automatically by sending pulses of electricity down failed lines.
“As a precautionary measure, we have disabled reclosing capabilities on all reclosers in the 12 counties impacted by high fire-threat,” she said.
PG&E said in a news release that it made its decision based on a number factors, including the Red Flag Warnings issued by the National Weather Service this weekend, and reports from its crews in the affected areas.
While the warning is effective through 11 p.m. Monday, the extremely low humidity from the weekend and forecast downslope winds coming from the east made for particularly dangerous conditions Sunday night, said Craig Shoemaker, a meteorologist for the service at its Sacramento office.
“We’re expecting very strong winds tonight,” he said. “Normally at night, humidities increase and usually the temperatures drop, which tends to improve fire weather conditions, but the winds actually helped keep the temperatures warmer and the relative humidity higher. It kind of works together, especially with the downslope wind.”
Shoemaker said winds being pushed down the mountain to areas such as Placerville, Colfax and Jackson, as well as towns farther north along the foothills including Oroville and Nevada City, were expected to be between 15 and 30 mph through the night, with some localized gusts reaching 55 mph.
“That’s why this is a particularly dangerous type of red flag condition,” he said. “The terrain over the foothills and mountains are so diverse, it’s really going to be localized areas near canyons that are going to have the strongest winds.”
Because of the fire danger, Cal Fire has put personnel in place throughout the area to be ready in case a fire develops, said Deputy Chief Scott McLean, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
“Engines are all staffed, aircraft are staffed, inmate crews are heavily staffed and can respond in moment’s notice,” he said Sunday night.
McLean stressed the need for residents of the foothills to be vigilant, regardless of whether their power is turned off, as fire season is still in full force.
The company said if power is cut, most service would be restored by Monday morning, but it cautioned that crews would be visually inspecting power lines before re-energizing certain areas.
“Nothing is more important than the safety of our customers and the communities we serve,” Pat Hogan, PG&E’s senior vice president of electric operations, said in a prepared statement. “We know how much our customers rely on electric service, and we have made the decision to turn off power as a last resort given the extreme fire danger conditions these communities are experiencing.
“PG&E has a plan. We want our customers to have plans, too.”
The company for years has resisted the idea of shutting off power lines during such windstorms, saying the public safety risks of putting communities in the dark was too high.
The new plan is to limit the danger posed by strong winds whipping electrical lines into trees or snapping them to the ground to ignite brush. That happened in at least 12 wildfires last October, according to Cal Fire. Officials in June blamed PG&E’s power and distribution lines, and the failure of its power poles, for fires in Mendocino, Humboldt, Butte, Sonoma, Lake and Napa counties.
On Tuesday, Cal Fire blamed PG&E for another fire, saying the Cascade Fire that killed four in Yuba County in October was caused by “sagging power lines” owned by the utility.
In March, stung by accusations that its equipment caused those October fires, the company said it would work with community and emergency officials and cut the juice as part of a multipronged initiative to tamp down wildfire risks, including trimming trees and vegetation adjacent to transmission wires more aggressively.
With insurance claims exceeding $9.4 billion, the October fires that killed 44 people were the most expensive in California’s history. PG&E Corp., the utility’s parent, has already told investors that it expects claims from last October’s fires to easily exceed $2.5 billion.
The agency has yet to provide a report on the Tubbs Fire, which destroyed more than 5,600 structures and killed 22 people.
“We really view this as a last resort,” Hogan said in March. “It’s one public safety risk vs. another. We’re very cognizant that when we shut off the power, that creates a whole set of safety risks. You potentially impact hospitals, fire stations, police stations, traffic lights go out, garages don’t open.”
Cutting off electricity when fire risks flare up has been controversial, as when San Diego Gas & Electric Co. shut off power to 19,000 customers for about four days in December as a precaution during the wind-blown Southern California wildfire. The fires never reached the area covered by the blackout, and a county supervisor named Dianne Jacob demanded a state investigation, saying the decision “left residents in even more danger.”
For PG&E, however, Hogan said “there are going to be times where the conditions on the ground are so extreme, that the potential for ignition, and the potential for spread if there was an ignition, is so high that we’re going to de-energize those lines.”
The Bee’s Dale Kasler contributed to this report.