With New Fire Threat Looming, PG&E Issues Alert for Possible Midweek Blackouts

PG&E Senior Wildfire Operations Center Analyst Sarah Gibson monitors weather and satellite images of fire areas at the PG&E Wildfire Safety Operations Center on Aug. 5, 2019 in San Francisco. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Updated 6:15 p.m. Monday

With another round of windy, bone-dry weather expected to descend on Northern and Central California later this week, PG&E is alerting customers that it may again shut off power to communities from parts of the Bay Area to the Sierra foothills to reduce the danger of its electrical lines touching off wildfires.

PG&E officials said late Monday that the utility could initiate power shutoffs beginning Wednesday evening in parts of 16 counties: Napa, San Mateo and Sonoma counties in the Bay Area, and Alpine, Amador, Butte, Calaveras, El Dorado, Lake, Mendocino, Nevada, Placer, Plumas, Sierra, Sutter and Yuba counties in the Sierra foothills.

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The potential shutoffs could affect 201,000 customers.

PG&E President and CEO Bill Johnson said the utility began contacting potentially affected customers by phone, email and text on Monday. If you aren't contacted, you’re not in the area where planned shutoffs may occur, Johnson said.

"[Shutoffs are] not a tool we want to use or a tool we like to use. We’re determined to not let catastrophic wildfires happen again," he added.

PG&E officials said if the forecast holds, they would begin power shutoffs around 5 p.m. Wednesday for counties in the North Bay and Sierra foothills, and 2 a.m. Thursday for parts of San Mateo County. Final decisions would be made and announced eight to 12 hours before a shutoff.

Johnson said customers should prepare for outages that could last up to 48 hours.

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PG&E issued an initial power shutoff watch Sunday evening as the National Weather Service warned of the onset of high winds and dry weather later this week, especially in the North Bay hills. The NWS San Francisco Bay Area office issued a Fire Weather Watch Monday afternoon, and said conditions could reach a critical point Wednesday night, with high fire danger lasting into Thursday.

"Right now, Wednesday night into Thursday morning is our period of biggest concern in terms of fire weather threat due to the most widespread and strongest offshore winds and lowest humidity," National Weather Service Meteorologist Spencer Tanjen said Monday. Wind speeds are expected to hit the 30 mph mark, with gusts as high as 50 mph.

The utility's alert follows widely criticized preemptive blackouts imposed in early October during another period of high fire danger. The power outages left 738,000 customers — or about 2 million residents in 34 counties — in the dark. The sprawling nature of the outages and PG&E's problems executing them have led to demands for increased oversight of the shutoffs, a fire-safety practice approved by state utility regulators after a series of devastating fires sparked by electrical lines.

PG&E's Johnson previously admitted following the Oct. 9-12 blackouts that the utility made numerous missteps, including poor communication, a barely functioning website and unanswered customer calls.

On Monday, Johnson said PG&E had prepared for a higher volume of website traffic by redirecting visitors to a separate, temporary site. He said the utility's address look-up tool would be available this time.

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Still, it could take up to 10 years for the utility to improve its system enough so it doesn't have to rely on power shutoffs to prevent wildfires during dry, windy conditions, Johnson said Friday at an emergency meeting of the California Public Utilities Commission.

PG&E executives said they found about 100 instances where high winds damaged or presented a hazard to electrical equipment during the shutoffs in early October. Most of the damage involved vegetation, like trees, grass or brush coming into contact with power lines.

"If you look at where the damage occurred on the system, it’s exactly where we shut off the power," Johnson said Monday. “I think the scope was right. We might have turned it off a little quicker than we needed to."

PG&E's equipment has been found responsible for starting the deadliest and most devastating wildfire in modern California history — last November's Camp Fire in Butte County, which killed 85 people and destroyed nearly 14,000 homes.

Since the North Bay Fires that began in October 2017, fires caused by electrical equipment have killed more than 130 people and burned more than 20,000 homes statewide.

KQED's David Marks contributed to this story.

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