Power out­ages be­gin in hot, windy Cal­i­for­nia

The state’s big­gest util­ity mak­ing ef­fort to pre­vent wild­fires.

Dayton Daily News - - FRONT PAGE - By Olga R. Ro­driguez and Janie Har

In ef­fort to pre­vent wild­fires, state’s big­gest util­ity shut off elec­tric­ity to more than 1 mil­lion for what may be days on end.

— Cal­i­forSAN FRANCISCO nia’s big­gest util­ity shut off elec­tric­ity to more than a mil­lion peo­ple Wed­nes­day for what could be days on end, in the most sweep­ing ef­fort in state his­tory to pre­vent wild­fires caused by wind­blown power lines.

The move came af­ter two years of cat­a­strophic fires sent Pa­cific Gas & Electric into bank­ruptcy and forced it to take more ag­gres­sive steps to pre­vent blazes.

The util­ity said it cut power to more than 500,000 cus­tomers in North­ern Cal­i­for- nia and that it planned to grad­u­ally turn off elec­tric­ity to nearly 800,000 cus­tomers to pre­vent its equip­ment from start­ing wild­fires dur­ing windy weather. A sec- ond group of about 234,000 cus­tomers was to lose power start­ing at noon, the util- ity said, fol­lowed by a third group the util­ity was still de­cid­ing on. The power out­ages were ex­pected to af­fect about 2 mil­lion peo­ple.

De­lib­er­ate out­ages like these could be­come the new nor­mal in an era in which sci­en­tists say cli­mate change is lead­ing to fiercer blazes and longer fire sea­sons.

The util­ity planned to shut off power in parts of 34 north­ern, cen­tral and coastal Cal­i­for­nia coun­ties to re­duce the chance of fierce winds knock­ing down or top­pling trees into power lines dur­ing a siege of dry, gusty weather.

Gusts of 35 mph to 45 mph were fore­cast to sweep a vast swath of the state, from the San Francisco Bay Area to the agri­cul­tural Cen­tral Val­ley and es­pe­cially in the Sierra Ne­vada foothills, where a Novem­ber wild­fire blamed on PG&E trans­mis­sion lines killed 85 peo­ple and vir­tu­ally in­cin­er­ated the town of Par­adise.

The Cal­i­for­nia De­part­ment of Forestry and Fire Pre­ven­tion said it in­creased staffing in prepa­ra­tion for ex­treme fire weather.

The winds will be the strong­est and most wide­spread the re­gion has seen in two years, and given the scope of the dan­ger, there was no other choice but to stage the largest pre­ven­tive black­out in state his­tory, PG&E said.

“This is a last re­sort,” said Sumeet Singh, head of the util­ity’s Com­mu­nity Wild- fire Safety Pro­gram.

But the util­ity faced crit- icism from res­i­dents who noted that it was not no­tice- ably windy on Wed­nes­day.

Michael Wara, a re­search fel­low on en­ergy pol­icy at Stan­ford Univer­sity who lives in Mill Val­ley, north of San Francisco, said his home lost power at 2 a.m. Wed­nes­day even though there was no wind in the area.

Wara said a fore­cast Tues­day night showed winds in Mt. Ta­mal­pais, a nearby mountain, were less than 10 mph.

“There is zero wind where I live,” Wara said. “PG&E is re­quired to shut down based on ob­served con­di­tions, not fore­cast con­di­tions.”

Gov. Gavin New­som said peo­ple should be out­raged by PG&E’s move.

“No one is sat­is­fied with this, no one is happy with this,” he said Tues­day.

The util­ity needs to up­grade and fix its equip­ment so mas­sive out­ages are not the norm go­ing for­ward, he said.

PG&E had warned of the pos­si­bil­ity of a wide­spread shut-off Mon­day, prompt­ing res­i­dents to flock to stores for sup­plies as they pre­pared for dy­ing cell­phone bat­ter- ies, au­to­matic garage doors that won’t work and luke­warm re­frig­er­a­tors.

The news came as res­i­dents in the re­gion’s wine coun­try north of San Franc isco marked the twoyear an­niver­sary of deadly wild­fires that killed 44 and de­stroyed thou­sands of homes. San Francisco is the only county in the nine-county Bay Area where power will not be af­fected.

Res­i­dents of the Sonoma County city of Cloverdale, pop­u­la­tion 9,300, were pre­par­ing for the pos­si­bil­ity of zero power and downed in­ter­net and cell­phone lines, which hap­pened dur­ing a series of wine coun­try fires that killed 45 peo­ple in 2017. Cloverdale homes were not burned then, but res­i­dents were wor­ried sick over family in burn zones and in the dark with­out com­mu­ni­ca­tions, Mayor Me­lanie Bagby said.

She ac­cused PG&E of fail­ing to up­grade its equip­ment.

“It’s in­ex­cus­able that we’re in the sit­u­a­tion that we’re in,” she said. “We pay our bills, and we gave PG&E a monopoly to guar­an­tee we would have” re­li­able power.

But Santa Rosa Mayor Tom Sch­wed­helm said he was grate­ful PG&E was tak­ing proac­tive ac­tion. His city lost 5% of its hous­ing dur­ing a 2017 fire that killed 22 and torched nearly 6,000 struc- tures in Sonoma and Napa coun­ties. State in­ves­ti­ga­tors de­ter­mined the fire was sparked by a pri­vate elec­tri- cal sys­tem, and was not the fault of PG&E.

It could take as many as five days to re­store power af­ter the dan­ger has passed be­cause every inch of power line must be checked to make sure it isn’t damaged or in dan­ger of spark­ing a blaze, PG&E said.

To the south, South­ern Cal­i­for­nia Edi­son said more than 106,000 of its cus­tomers in parts of eight coun- ties could face power cuts as early as to­day as Santa Ana winds loomed.

The cutbacks fol­lowed a plan in­sti­tuted af­ter deadly wild­fires — some blamed on downed PG&E trans­mis­sion lines — de­stroyed dozens of lives and thou­sands of homes in re­cent years and forced the util­ity into bank­ruptcy over an es­ti­mated $30 bil­lion in po­ten­tial dam­ages from law­suits.

The out­ages Wed­nes­day weren’t lim­ited to fire-prone ar­eas be­cause the util­i­ties must turn off en­tire dis­tri­bu­tion and trans­mis­sion lines to much wider ar­eas to min­i­mize the risk of wild­fires.

Classes were can­celed for thou­sands of school­child­ren and at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, Sonoma State Univer­sity and Mills Col­lege.

Hos­pi­tals would op­er­ate on backup power, but other sys­tems could see their gen­er­a­tors fail af­ter a few days. Out­ages even posed a threat that fire hy­drants wouldn’t work at a time of ex­treme fire dan­ger.

Coun­ties ac­ti­vated their emerge ncy cen­ters and au­thor­i­ties urged peo­ple to have sup­plies of wa­ter for sev­eral days, to keep sen­si­tive medicines such as in­sulin in cool places, to drive care­fully be­cause traf­fic lights could be out, to have a full gas tank for emer­gen­cies and to check the food in freez­ers and re­frig­er­a­tors for spoilage af­ter power is re­stored.

PG&E set up about 30 com­mu­nity cen­ters of­fer­ing air con­di­tion­ing, re­strooms, bot­tled wa­ter and elec­tronic charg­ing sta­tions dur­ing day­light hours.

O ak l and Mayor Libby Schaaf asked res­i­dents Tues­day not to clog 911 lines with none­mer­gen­cies and urged peo­ple to be pre­pared. The city can­celed all po­lice of­fi­cers’ days off in prepa­ra­tion for the out­ages.

PG&E said it was in­form­ing cus­tomers by text and email about where and when the power would be cut. But its web­site, where it di­rected peo­ple to check whether their ad­dresses would be af­fected, was not work­ing most of the day Tues­day af­ter be­ing over­loaded with vis­i­tors.

Hos­pi­tals would op­er­ate on backup power, but other sys­tems could see their gen­er­a­tors fail af­ter a few days. Out­ages even posed a threat that fire hy­drants wouldn’t work at a time of ex­treme fire dan­ger.

NOAH BERGER / AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Ar­mando Espinoza de­liv­ers paper prod­ucts to a cafe Wed­nes­day in down­town Sonoma, Calif., where power is turned off. Pa­cific Gas & Electric has cut power hop­ing to pre­vent wild­fires dur­ing dry, windy weather through­out the re­gion.

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