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Major power shut-offs are new reality as California enters peak wildfire season

Scott Wit with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection surveys burned-out vehicles near a fallen power line after 2018’s Camp fire, the deadliest in the state’s history.
Scott Wit with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection surveys burned-out vehicles near a fallen power line after 2018’s Camp fire, the deadliest in the state’s history.
(Josh Edelson / AFP/Getty Images)

Russ Brown and other emergency officials in Yuba County have been trying to get the word out.

Charge your medical equipment and phone batteries now. Make sure you have enough nonperishable food to last a few days.

Because when the hot winds start blowing, the power to your house may be shut off.

The state is entering the height of fire season, with a dangerous mix of strong winds and temperatures approaching triple digits forecast across its valleys and foothills. For the first time this year, several Northern and Southern California communities simultaneously are facing preemptive blackouts to reduce the fire risks.

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This is adding a new element of uncertainty and controversy in scores of communities.

“It’s the new normal we expect to see,” Brown said. “These shut-offs — they understand it, but it’s frustrating. It disrupts their lives.”

Pacific Gas & Electric has vowed to power down to avoid a repeat of last year’s Camp fire, in which thousands of homes were burned and 86 people were killed. Investigators identified downed PG&E equipment as the likely cause of the deadliest blaze in California history.

But the power shut-offs have generated debate, with some residents saying they create a whole new set of dangers as they try to watch out for news about fires. There has been heightened concern about those with health issues who rely on medical equipment to stay alive.

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Some state and local officials have also complained that utilities don’t always give enough notice before turning off the power. And they have expressed concerns about communications and evacuations if the power is out, especially if traffic signals don’t work and cellphone service is affected.

Of the three big California utilities, PG&E was the last to adopt preemptive shut-offs as a strategy to reduce wildfire risks. San Diego Gas & Electric began doing them in 2013 and Southern California Edison in 2017. Each said it shuts off power only a few times a year and tries to limit the number of customers affected.

“What we’ve learned over the last two years is that the potential [for wildfire] is so great that we’re changing our practices,” said Robert Villegas, an Edison spokesman. “We’re monitoring year-round. There is no more seasons for us.”

On Sunday, Southern California Edison began notifying customers in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, San Bernardino and Riverside counties that their power may be shut off starting Tuesday. About 45,000 customers — most of them in San Bernardino and Riverside counties — could be affected, Villegas said.

Thus far, San Diego Gas & Electric has not had to do any shut-offs this year. The company said it routinely monitors weekly forecasts and will begin notifications 48 hours ahead of any potential shut-off. It called a “public safety power shut-off” a tool of last resort.

“Although we’ve made great efforts to protect our communities, there are still times during extreme weather when we may employ the use of Public Safety Power Shut-offs to try to prevent our electric system from becoming the source of an ignition which may endanger local residents and communities,” a company spokeswoman said in email.

Since Sunday, Yuba County has been telling residents on social media and its third-party alerting system, CodeRed, that they need to be prepared to go without power. About 5,300 residents were expected to have their power turned off at some point Monday evening, Brown said.

Over the weekend, the warnings to residents came in earnest in counties across Northern California: The days ahead are going to be hot and windy, and because of that you might have your power shut off.

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At one point, it was estimated that some 3.8 million customers would have their power shut off by Pacific Gas & Electric out of concern that wind gusts could snap off a tree branch or damage a piece of equipment, creating a spark that could lead to the next wildfire disaster.

By Monday afternoon, those concerns were scaled back to three counties and thousands of customers in the Sierra foothills. PG&E decided not to proceed with evening shut-offs in Lake, Napa and Sonoma counties in the North Bay, and in El Dorado, Placer and Sutter counties in the Sierra foothills. The utility said it might shut off power to parts of those counties Tuesday, depending on the weather.

Starting Monday evening, the utility had began cutting power to about 24,000 customers in Butte, Nevada and Yuba counties.

“There’s not a single factor that will drive a public safety power shut-off event, but we definitely look at the humidity, the temperature and the wind speeds,” PG&E spokeswoman Megan McFarland said. She said the company began notifying customers in affected areas that shut-offs were possible. The notifications were made by robocalls, texts messages and emails starting at 8 p.m. Saturday, she said.

Brown said officials have been in constant communication with the utility and first responders about how to prepare.

Nearly all of California’s biggest and most deadly wildfires have occurred in the last 20 years, with many of them being sparked by equipment.

It’s that liability that pushed PG&E into bankruptcy this year and has raised concerns that utilities may become more eager to shut off power to avoid potential catastrophe, even when the risks seem minimal.

“The seriousness we’ve seen has been with these extremely high-wind events, and now it’s moderate events,” Brown said. “I hope people don’t become numb to the messaging we put out.”

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In the town of Paradise, news of the preemptive measure provided little comfort.

PG&E announced — then canceled — a power shut-off just before November’s Camp fire. Investigators with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection later determined the blaze was sparked by a transmission line, which PG&E said would not have been included in any preemptive shutoff.

“It’s frustrating,” Paradise City Councilwoman Melissa Schuster said Monday. “We heard this before the Camp fire. Power was not shut off. So rather than being relieved — and we’re coming up on Nov. 8 again — it’s a little bit of a trigger for most of us, I think. It’s where we were a year ago.”

The only big difference, she said, is that there’s not much left to burn.

She said that as residents rebuild, more are outfitting their homes with generators and solar panels to serve as backup power sources “because electricity is just not dependable anymore.”

“It’s kind of crazy,” she said. “It’s just one more thing that we all have to address in this ‘new now,’ being prepared for this type of thing.”

Meanwhile, a red flag warning is in effect from 1 p.m. Monday through 11 a.m. Wednesday in the Sacramento Valley. Winds are estimated to be between 10 and 25 mph, with gusts between 30 and 40 mph, according to the National Weather Service. Slightly stronger winds are predicted in the Sierra foothills, with gusts up to 45 mph.

The western portion of the Sacramento Valley and neighboring foothills are facing the biggest fire threat because the highest wind gusts and lowest humidity are forecast there. The threat will be highest during the night and morning hours, when winds are strongest, the weather service said.

In the Bay Area, the red flag warning is in effect from 9 p.m. Monday through 5 a.m. Wednesday for the North Bay Mountains, East Bay Hills and the Diablo Range.

Strong winds are forecast for the higher elevations of Napa and Sonoma counties and the East Bay Hills, with gusts from 30 to 35 mph starting late Monday night. Wind gusts could reach 40 mph along some of the North Bay Mountains, where the fire threat will be most acute, forecasters said.

Cal Fire sent five engine strike teams and seven hand-crew strike teams to the northern part of the state, said Scott McLean, an agency spokesman. The teams arrived Sunday and Monday and included extra personnel.

The Los Angeles area will face brief but critical fire weather conditions Tuesday, as temperatures warm and Santa Ana winds develop, the weather service said.

Wind gusts could reach 25 to 40 mph in the mountains and valleys of Ventura and L.A. counties starting Monday night and persisting through Wednesday morning, with the strongest winds expected Tuesday morning.

Temperatures are expected to rise seven to 15 degrees Tuesday, with the biggest increase along the coasts and the coastal valleys, where highs are forecast in the 90s, according to the weather service. Some neighborhoods in the San Fernando Valley, including Woodland Hills and Van Nuys, are expected to see triple-digit temperatures.

The critical fire weather comes as the state is battling more than half a dozen blazes that are larger than 500 acres. Although California has already seen more than 157,000 acres burn in wildfires this year, that number is a fraction of how many acres had burned by this time last year, according to Cal Fire data.

Still, fire officials have cautioned this is the time of year when offshore weather patterns typically bring hotter, drier and windier conditions, drying out fuels and increasing the probability of ignition.

“September and October are historically the two months that we see the most significant wildfires, as far as most disastrous, largest and so on,” McLean said. “With the winds, fires take off very quickly, hence the red flag warning.”


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