PG&E has begun cutting power across parts of Northern California

Author: Christina Maxouris and Jason Hanna, CNN Writer: Derrick Shaw
Published: Updated:
A map from PG&E shows the areas where power may be cut. Nearly 500,000 Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) customers in Northern California were in the dark starting at midnight Wednesday as the company began shutting off power in an effort to help prevent starting a wildfire. (PG&E)

California’s largest utility has intentionally cut power to roughly 500,000 customers in Northern California — a number that’s scheduled to rise later Wednesday in what could be a dayslong outage — as the company tries to prevent wildfires during extremely windy and dry conditions.

Pacific Gas & Electric started the shutoff early Wednesday, leaving parts of 22 counties — including northern portions of the San Francisco Bay Area — in the dark.

As many as 300,000 additional customers are expected to lose power later in the day — including in Alameda and Santa Clara counties, which contain the Oakland, Berkeley and San Jose areas — for a total of 800,000 homes, businesses and other buildings affected, the company said.

“We implement this public safety power shutoff as a last resort,” Sumeet Singh, vice president of PG&E’s Community Wildfire Safety Program, said Tuesday, citing forecasters’ warnings that parts of Northern California are under extreme danger of fire because of high winds.

Several school districts and a major university have canceled classes. And officials in cities such as San Jose are urging people reliant on medical devices to get them charged at certain community centers that will remain powered.

Some residents facing life without electricity are checking into hotels outside the outage area, CNN affiliate KGO reported.

“Most people don’t realize what an outage really means,” one of those hotel guests, Marilyn Varnado of eastern Oakland, told KGO. “Stop lights are not going to be working. There’s going to be a lot of crazy things going on, and I just think there’s going to be some tragedies because of that.”

Once the winds die down, it could take several days to restore power, Singh said, as the company will first conduct safety inspections.

The deliberate outages come after PG&E signaled this year it would cut power more aggressively than in the past, in hopes of preventing wildfires caused by high winds downing live power equipment.

PG&E had come under criticism in recent years for the role of its equipment in a series of catastrophic wildfires across the state, including the deadly 2018 Camp Fire. The utility has agreed to pay billions of dollars in damages.

Who will be impacted

The early-morning shutoff will be followed by a second stage, around noon PT Wednesday, that will cut power to about 234,000 customers in Alameda and Santa Clara counties and elsewhere, PG&E said.

A third stage, which would affect another 42,000 customers further south, is being considered, the utility said.

Both PG&E and city governments were setting up centers that will remain powered, where people can go during daylight to access air conditioning and charging stations.

In San Jose, the expected outages are exasperating some officials who say they’d rather the utility not cut electrical service. And they are warning of consequences both inconvenient and potentially life-threatening.

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo urged residents on Monday to prepare to be without power for as long as seven days.

Southern and eastern parts of San Jose are expected to see their power cut. Although PG&E says only 38,000 San Jose accounts will be affected, that could translate to as many as 200,000 of the city’s 1 million residents, said Kip Harkness, the deputy city manager.

Because some traffic lights will be out, people should consider driving as little as possible, Harkness said during a Wednesday news conference.

Police, fire, water, sewer and garbage-pickup services will continue, Harkness said. But he urged people to check on vulnerable people, like the sick, elderly and those who rely on medical devices.

“Prepare yourself, prepare your family, and help your neighbors,” he said.

San Jose officials don’t want the outages and would prefer that PG&E improve its equipment so that it wouldn’t feel compelled to interrupt power to prevent wildfires, Harkness said.

“We really want to put pressure on PG&E to make investments on their infrastructure to make it safe and reliable so they won’t have to shut down when there are weather events, and we’re talking to them and making that stance known to them,” he said.

Some schools close as officials scramble to keep traffic tunnels open

The California Department of Transportation has been working with the utility company to secure backup power generators to keep some traffic tunnels open, including the Caldecott Tunnel in Contra Costa and Alameda counties and the Tom Lantos Tunnel in Pacifica, spokesman Bart Ney told CNN.

The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system isn’t expected to shut down, its officials said in a tweet. BART has portable generators at certain stations and will have personnel monitoring the generators, a Twitter thread said.

Some stations may face escalator outages, BART said.

UC Berkeley canceled classes Wednesday in anticipation of the shutoff. The campus will be open Wednesday, but services will be limited, the university said.

Numerous primary and secondary schools also are closed Wednesday, including in the Napa Valley Unified School District, San Leandro Unified School District and Cloverdale Unified School District, plus Bennett Valley Union School District schools in Strawberry and Yulupa.

State agencies are working with local governments “to address all emergency management, evacuation and mutual aid needs,” the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services said.

Why the weather conditions are important

Sustained winds stronger than 20 mph around Northern California and gusts of 60 to 70 mph in higher elevations are expected Wednesday into Thursday, the utility has said.

The forecast conditions “historically have led to catastrophic wildfires,” the utility’s senior meteorologist, Evan Duffey, said Tuesday.

The National Weather Service has warned of strong winds and low humidity running over dry vegetation, which the service said act as “fuels.”

“This is a recipe for explosive fire growth, if a fire starts,” the weather service said. “Have your go pack ready.”

The service starting early Wednesday morning issued red-flag warnings for some areas. The warnings mean “warm temperatures, very low humidities, and stronger winds are expected to combine to produce an increased risk of fire danger,” the service said.

High temperatures Wednesday are expected to vary widely in the region, from the high 60s in some parts of the Bay Area to the lower 80s elsewhere.

Utility started a more aggressive shutoff plan this year

PG&E, after its equipment was blamed for sparking deadly wildfires in recent years, warned in February it could proactively cut power more often and to more customers at a time than it ever had during risky weather conditions.

As part of this plan, PG&E would for the first time consider temporarily de-energizing high-voltage power lines — arteries that feed smaller transmission and distribution lines — in risky areas.

Cutting high-voltage power lines, though, would cause power outages well down the grid, even to cities where fire risks are not extreme, PG&E warned in April.

“(That’s) because of the interconnected nature of our electrical grid and the power lines working together to provide electricity to cities, counties and regions,” Singh said.

State regulators approved this plan, along with rules meant to prepare and warn the public, in May.

PG&E has previously said it is “probable” that its equipment started the 2018 Camp Fire — the state’s deadliest blaze — by coming into contact with nearby trees. California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection found PG&E responsible for the fire, which killed 85 people and destroyed thousands of structures.

The utility announced in September it had reached an $11 billion settlement with insurance companies for claims stemming from the devastating 2017 wildfires in Northern California and the Camp Fire. In June, PG&E paid $1 billion in damages to local governments for blazes linked to its power lines, poles and other equipment.

It could take days to restore power

Power will take several days to restore as the company inspects its equipment to make sure there’s no damage, Singh said.

“We very much understand the inconvenience and difficulties such a power outage would cause and we do not take or make this decision lightly,” he said. “This decision … was really focused on ensuring that we’re continuing to maintain the safety of our customers and our communities.”

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