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 — as the company tries to prevent wildfires during extremely windy and dry conditions.
Pacific Gas & Electric started the shutoff early Wednesday, just after midnight, 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 by the shutoff, the company said.
Several school districts and a major university have canceled classes, while traffic tunnels and public transit amenities also may be affected, officials said.
Forecasters warn that many parts of Northern California are under extreme fire weather danger, with windy and dry conditions forecast.
“We implement this public safety power shutoff as a last resort,” Sumeet Singh, vice president of PG&E’s Community Wildfire Safety Program, said in a Tuesday news conference.
It could take several days to restore power, Singh said, as the company will first conduct safety inspections once the widespread wind event is over.
This comes 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 midnight shutoff was the first of what may be three outage stages. The second stage, cutting power to about 234,000 customers in Alameda and Santa Clara counties and elsewhere, is expected to start at noon PT, PG&E said.
A third stage, which would affect another 42,000 customers further south, is being considered, the utility said.
San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo urged residents on Monday to prepare to be without power for as long as seven days.
The California Department of Transportation has been working with the utility company to secure backup power generators to keep the Caldecott Tunnel in Contra Costa and Alameda counties and the Tom Lantos Tunnel in Pacifica open, spokesman Bart Ney told CNN.
The Caldecott Tunnel would be closed on State Route 24 and the Lantos Tunnel could close along State Route 1 in Pacifica, CNN affiliate KGO reported.
The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system it didn’t expect to be impacted by the shutoff, it 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.
The Governor’s Office of Emergency Services has activated the State Operations Center to help counties affected in the shutoff, it said.
“Cal OES Fire, Law Enforcement, Inland Region and Coastal Region personnel are currently working with various response agencies to address all emergency management, evacuation and mutual aid needs,” the agency said in a news release.
Why the weather conditions are important
The conditions that are being forecast for portions of the state “historically have led to catastrophic wildfires,” the utility’s senior meteorologist, Evan Duffey, said Tuesday.
And this, he said, is by all metrics “forecast to be the strongest offshore wind event since October 2017.”
The National Weather Service has warned of strong winds and low humidity running over dry vegetation, which the service said acts 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 issued red flag warnings starting early Wednesday morning across the North Bay Mountains and Valleys, East Bay Hills and East Bay Valleys. 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.
The strong winds will begin Wednesday morning and will last through Friday morning, Duffey said.
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-engergizing 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 line, 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.”