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PG&E may shut off power in 17 California counties as dangerous winds return

FILE - In this Nov. 9, 2018 file photo, Pacific Gas & Electric crews work to restore power lines in
In this Nov. 9, 2018, file photo, Pacific Gas & Electric crews work to restore power lines in Paradise, Calif. PG&E and Southern California Edison are considering shutting off power to thousands of customers this week amid wildfire concerns.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Tens of thousands of Californians could be without power this week as two major utility companies consider shutting off electricity to large swaths of the state amid heightened concerns that hot weather and strong winds could lead to wildfires.

Pacific Gas & Electric executives said during an early evening news conference Monday that as many as 201,000 customers could lose power beginning Wednesday evening because of a high-wind forecast. In addition, the utility said earlier it would consider cutting power to customers in parts of 15 counties as early as Wednesday as potentially strong, dry offshore winds blow into the Sierra foothills and North Bay.

Portions of Amador, Butte, Calaveras, El Dorado, Lake, Mendocino, Napa, Nevada, Placer, Plumas, San Mateo, Sierra, Sonoma, Sutter and Yuba counties could be affected by the shut-off, according to the utility.

PG&E promised that it had improved its notification process after a planned outage earlier this month to more than 700,000 customers prompted widespread complaints that the power outage was too broad and lasted too long — leaving more than 2 million people statewide in the dark.

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PG&E President and CEO William D. Johnson said extra digital capacity has been added to PG&E’s website and 380 phone agents have been put in place to field calls, with top priority going to questions about the possible outage.

Johnson said the final call on the power shut-offs will not be made until Wednesday afternoon. “We are hoping the weather breaks in our favor and we will not have to do this,” he said to reporters, who questioned whether PG&E would do a better job than in the last outage.

Customers said that the shut-offs created a whole new set of hazards by preventing people from getting news about fires. There was also concern about those with health issues who rely on electrically powered medical equipment to stay alive.

During the last planned outage, PG&E’s website crashed and customers had difficulty obtaining information about their service, adding to the frustration.

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Public officials have sharply criticized PG&E over the outage, with California Public Utilities Commission President Marybel Batjer saying Friday that the utility “was not fully prepared to manage such a large-scale power shut-off.” Utility executives have defended the outages, saying they are being done in an effort to protect the public from deadly wildfires sparked by their equipment.

PG&E President Johnson reiterated Monday that the utility was working steadfastly to lower fire risks. He said the utility had 4,500 workers out “every day” clearing trees away from power lines to try to reduce the wildfire risk. But he suggested that the scope of the problem had grown so quickly that it had been difficult to keep up. In 2012, just 15% of PG&E’s service area was located in what had been deemed high-fire-risk zones, while today 50% is in such high-danger areas, Johnson said, adding, “We are dealing with a new reality.”

As many as 100,000 Californians are eligible to receive payments for the damages they suffered from a series of devastating wildfires over the last several years. But tens of thousands of them have not sought compensation.

On Sunday, Southern California Edison cut power to a handful of customers in unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County including Agua Dulce and Acton, along with customers in Devil’s Canyon, Serrano Village and Kendall in San Bernardino County amid high temperatures and wind in the region. Power to those customers was restored early Monday, according to the utility.

More than 17,000 other Edison customers in five counties — Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Orange, Santa Barbara and Ventura — are under consideration for power outages in coming days. The largest concentration of customers who could be affected — more than 5,000 — is in San Bernardino County.

National Weather Service forecasters predict elevated fire weather conditions for Los Angeles, Ventura, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties through Wednesday as Santa Ana winds develop in the area and temperatures spike into the high 80s and low 90s. Peak wind gusts of 30 to 40 mph are expected in the region.

Similar conditions helped fuel the Saddleridge fire that scorched nearly 8,800 acres in the hills of the northern San Fernando Valley, destroying 19 structures and damaging 88, according to most recent estimates from the Los Angeles Fire Department. SCE is facing scrutiny over possible links between the company’s electrical system and the start of the fire in Sylmar.

Edison’s electrical system was “impacted” around the time that investigators suspect the Saddleridge fire ignited beneath a high-voltage transmission tower, according to the utility. The cause of the fire, which is 89% contained, has not been determined.

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Equipment malfunctions have been tied to some of the state’s most destructive and deadliest fires, including last year’s Camp fire — which devastated the town of Paradise in Northern California and killed 85 people — and the 2017 wine country blazes.

Investigators determined last year that Edison power lines ignited the 2017 Thomas fire, a massive blaze in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties that killed two people. Officials are still trying to determine whether power lines sparked last November’s Woolsey fire, which ripped through Ventura County and Malibu.

During an emergency meeting of the California Public Utilities Commission on Friday, PG&E President Johnson said California residents face up to a decade of widespread forced power shut-offs until the bankrupt utility giant will be able to prevent its power transmission lines from sparking fires.

Here’s the list of areas that may be affected by the Southern California Edison outages:

  • Los Angeles County (1,762 customers): unincorporated areas including Castaic.
  • San Bernardino County (5,751 customers): San Bernardino Fontana, unincorporated areas of Etiwanda, Grapevine Canyon, San Sevaine Flats, Devil’s Canyon, Serrano Village, Kendall, University, Cajon, Arrowhead Farms, North Park and Hudson.
  • Santa Barbara County (2,898 customers): Santa Barbara, Carpinteria, unincorporated areas including Gaviota, Jalama Beach, Montecito and Summerland.
  • Ventura County (4,439 customers): Ventura, Moorpark, Simi Valley, Ojai and unincorporated areas of Ventura County and Santa Susana.

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