Pacific Gas & Electric said Friday that it would probably begin cutting off power to 850,000 Northern California customers — more than 2 million people — on Saturday night as historic winds returned to the region.
It would be the largest wind-related blackout yet, affecting 36 counties.
Despite a brief respite from strong winds Friday, firefighters struggled to make progress against a 21,900-acre wildfire in Sonoma County that continued to burn out of control, as even fiercer weekend winds loomed.
The utility said it was aware of safety hazards that Geyserville residents faced as they evacuated their homes and fled from the Kincade fire in the darkness caused by the outages.
The Kincade fire has burned 21,900 acres in northern Sonoma County and was only 5% contained as of Friday afternoon. The entire town of Geyserville and vineyards in the region were ordered to evacuate, though some stayed, using generators for power. Fire officials said 49 structures, including 21 homes, were destroyed and the Geysers geothermal facilities run by Calpine Corp. reported some damage.
The cause of the fire was still under investigation, but some suspicion was already turning to transmission lines owned by embattled Pacific Gas & Electric.
PG&E said Thursday that one of its transmission lines experienced problems Wednesday night around the area where the fire broke out.
In a mandatory report sent to the California Public Utilities Commission, the company said one of its workers noticed that the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection had taped off the area. PG&E said Cal Fire also pointed out a “broken jumper on the same tower.”
PG&E had been shutting off power to residents to avoid fires sparked by electric lines. The company said nearly 28,000 people in Sonoma County, including Geyserville and the surrounding area, lost power when distribution lines were shut off at 3 p.m. Wednesday. The company said transmission lines, which operate at a higher voltage, remained energized at the time the fire started.
Transmission lines generally carry electricity from power plants to substations. Distribution lines deliver power directly to homes and businesses. Jason King, a spokesman for PG&E, said Friday that he did not know whether these transmission lines will be de-energized in the next power shut-off.
By 10 p.m. Thursday, power had been restored to 81% of Sonoma County, but in the vicinity of Geyserville, it remained too unsafe to restore electricity, King said. The utility does not know when Geyserville residents will have power again.
At a news conference Friday afternoon, Gov. Gavin Newsom said PG&E’s greed and mismanagement has contributed to this point in California history, with fires burning across the state and hundreds of thousands left in the dark.
“They simply did not do their jobs,” he said. “It took us decades to get here, but we will get out of this mess. We will do everything in our power to restructure PG&E so they are a completely different entity when they get out of bankruptcy. Mark my words. It is a new day of accountability.”
Newsom announced that the state secured $75 million for areas affected by power shut-offs. Half would be allocated to local governments, with the cities of Los Angeles, San Jose, San Diego and Oakland receiving $500,000 each. The money can be used to purchase equipment for planned shut-offs, such as generators, fuel storage and other backup energy sources.
This week, the state provided additional resources to assist PG&E in investigating power lines and turning the power back on more quickly, including for aircraft and infrared technology, Newsom said.
On Friday, the difficulty for firefighters battling the Kincade fire would be the dry conditions, said NWS meteorologist Drew Peterson. The humidity levels would hover in the low teens with poor overnight recovery. But winds were much calmer.
“There is going to be minimum risk from wind today,” Peterson said. “Hopefully, they can make some progress. We’ll most likely see the fire spreading once again” Saturday evening, when gusts would reach up to 75 mph.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw gusts between 80 and 85 mph,” in the area of the Kincade fire, Peterson said.
Then on Sunday, conditions are likely to worsen. The winds are expected to head down slope, reaching urban areas as far as Oakland, San Francisco and Sacramento. These winds are what brought devastation to rural communities in the foothills of the North Bay hills when fires struck in 2017. The Tubbs fire in Sonoma and Napa counties killed 22 people and destroyed more than 5,000 homes.
Peterson called the down slope winds “the last punch to the gut” in this wind system.
PG&E, which has 5.4 million electric customers and provides power to 16 million Californians, was projecting Thursday that it could shut off power across nearly all of its territory in Northern California on Sunday and Monday because of the ferocious gusts.
King acknowledged that many Geyserville residents were forced to evacuate in the darkness because of the public safety power shut-offs and that there’s a possibility for that to occur again this weekend should more fires ignite in public safety power outage zones.
“We want our customers to know we understand this is very impactful and a major inconvenience.” King said. “Again, we only take this step of a public safety power shut-off if it’s absolutely necessary.”
Sacramento lawmakers and regulators have introduced a bill that would force companies to keep insuring homeowners in fire zones, if they take steps to prepare for wildfire.
There’s no guarantee a government entity would do a better job than Pacific Gas & Electric.
Deadly fires in recent years have heightened concerns in California about the impacts of climate change. The same shift is happening in Australia.
Madonna Tavares, 70, of Geyserville said she could hardly see a foot in front of her because of the thick smoke as she rushed to evacuate from her home. With the power out, she and her husband scrambled in the dark to get dressed, find their two small dogs and jump in their car.
“They shut off the power and we still had a fire,” she said. “I don’t understand it.”
The couple heard news reports about the fire Wednesday evening near the River Rock Casino but said it appeared to have died down by the time they went to sleep around midnight. At 5:30 a.m., they were awakened by a loud bang at the door.
“Get out! Get out!” the Tavareses’ landlord shouted.
Tavares said it wasn’t until she and her husband were safe in the Healdsburg Community Center that she finally broke down in tears.
“I really hope [the house] didn’t burn down,” she said. “We’ve been there four years. We just finished furnishing the place. I painted the whole inside, and we just got it the way we liked. Now the fire will take that away.”