In an unprecedented public safety shutoff event, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. began cutting electricity to nearly 2 million people in Northern California early Wednesday in an effort to save life and property amid critical fire weather warnings forecast across the state over the next 48 hours.
By 4 a.m., PG&E had reached its estimated target of 513,000 customers in the first phase of outages, according to the company’s website. The bulk of the blackouts lined the hills rising out of the Sacramento Valley and in the California’s famed wine country.
PG&E warned customers in its vast electric service territory – stretching along the state’s spine from Redding to Bakersfield and from the suburbs of San Francisco Bay to the foothills above Sacramento – that the power may not return until Tuesday, perhaps longer. An army of linemen and engineers with a “prioritized” approach would need to inspect power lines on nearly every mile of wire after the predicted winds, called Diablos in the north and Santa Anas in the south, dissipate as early as Thursday.
The historic decision to plunge 800,000 homes and businesses into isolation, the embattled utility said, was its “last resort” to ward off the threat of wildfires such as the Camp Fire, which tore through the foothills of Butte County, destroying the town of Paradise and killing 85 in the worst wildfire in California history. The fire was ignited by one of the company’s power lines in the very deadly scenario the publicly traded company is trying to prevent this time.
The massive interruption was designed after a growing tally of wildfires that forced the utility into bankruptcy over an estimated $30 billion in potential damages from lawsuits.
Where the power is out now
The utility said the first phase would impose blackouts on roughly 513,000 customers in the following counties: Amador, Butte, Calaveras, Colusa, El Dorado, Glenn, Humboldt, Lake, Marin, Mendocino, Napa, Nevada, Placer, Plumas, Shasta, Sierra, Solano, Sonoma, Tehama, Trinity, Yolo and Yuba.
The first outages occurred a few minutes after midnight in Placer, Nevada and Yuba counties – in places like Rocklin, Penryn, Newcastle and Elders Corner, north of Auburn – according to PG&E outage page. Amador City, Vacaville and west of Corning were also among the first to go.
Images from the vast array of wildfire surveillance cameras set up by universities and PG&E to monitor wilderness in real-time for fire showed angle after angle of Northern California illuminated only by the nearly-full moon.
Then, a few minutes later, at 12:30 a.m., Marysville, Wheatland, Grass Valley – all north of Sacramento – as well as Plymouth and areas on the outskirts of Willows were taken offline.
Simultaneously, cities in wine country were cut in places like Sonoma, Napa and towns below St. Helena, as well as more cities along the Interstate 80 corridor, including north of the highway’s split with I-505 in Solano County. Mill Valley and other parts of Marin County, due north of San Francisco, came offline next.
At 12:45 a.m., the first homes in El Dorado County, near Clarksville along Highway 50, were dark along with homes on the other side of Lake Folsom in Granite Bay. To the southeast along Highway 49, more areas followed suit.
Reports began to come in minutes later in Red Bluff and other parts of the upper Sacramento Valley. Images from that AlertWildfire network of cameras showed communities such as Bend plunging into darkness at 12:39 p.m.
At 1 a.m., according to the utility’s website, more than 130,000 customers were a part of the mass-imposed blackout; over 200,000 by 1:30 a.m. At 2 a.m., the darkness extended to parts of the Emerald Coast in Eureka and areas as far south as Camanche Reservoir where Amador, Calaveras, and San Joaquin counties meet.
The second phase of the shutoff, the company said, would occur around noon clustered around Silicon Valley and the East Bay and affecting approximately 234,000 customers in Alameda, Alpine, Contra Costa, Mariposa, San Joaquin, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.
The utility said a third phase is under consideration for Kern County, affecting 42,000 customers in the southernmost portions of PG&E’s service area.
PG&E said it was informing customers by text and email about where and when the power would be cut. But its website, where it directed people to check whether their addresses would be affected, crashed most of the day Tuesday after being overloaded with visitors.
‘Measure of last resort’
PG&E during a news conference Tuesday night that the lights would begin to go out at midnight, prompting worries among many reliant on electricity for health and basic needs. The utility planned to shut down power to about 500,000 customers between midnight and 4 a.m. Wednesday, starting northward and following the winds south, expanding the outage as weather required it.
“This is the measure of last resort,” Sumeet Singh, PG&E’s vice president of the community wildfire safety program, said late Tuesday.
But the outages weren’t limited to fire-prone areas because the utilities must turn off entire distribution and transmission lines to much wider areas to minimize the risk of wildfires.
The outage is expected to be by far the largest purposeful power shut-down in PG&E’s history, dwarfing PG&E’s Oct. 14, 2018, shut-off, the biggest to date, when 59,000 customers in El Dorado and Lake counties lost power.
“The safety of our customers and the communities we serve is our most important responsibility, which is why PG&E has decided to turn power off to customers during this widespread, severe wind event,” said Michael Lewis, PG&E’s senior vice president of electric operations. “We understand the effects this event will have on our customers and appreciate the public’s patience as we do what is necessary to keep our communities safe and reduce the risk of wildfire.”
As many as 28 community resource centers would open at 8 a.m. around the north state to offer residents without power restrooms, bottled water, charging stations and air-conditioned seating.
When will the power return?
The planned shutoff, PG&E officials said, could wind up affecting more than half of California’s counties – 34 of 58 – including broad portions of the Sierra Nevada foothills, the Sacramento Valley, the Bay Area and even Central California. No shutoffs are expected for Sacramento County, but more than 100,000 customers are expected to lose power in neighboring El Dorado, Placer and Yolo counties.
Capital region communities from Rocklin to Colfax to Cameron Park were among those in the outage zone.
Michael Lewis, senior vice president of PG&E’s electric operations, said in a prepared statement that it could take “several days to fully restore power after the weather passes and safety inspections are completed.” Windy conditions are expected to last through midday Thursday.
PG&E has emphasized in recent weeks that full restoration of power requires visual inspection of all transmission and distribution lines throughout the affected areas. That equates to thousands of miles of overhead lines, including some in rugged areas.
To the south, Southern California Edison said more than 106,000 of its customers in parts of eight counties could face power cuts as early as Thursday as Santa Ana winds loomed.
Wind forecast for California
The engineered blackout – which could affect 16 percent of PG&E’s 5 million customers – began ahead of the “strongest wind event of the season” to hit Northern California, with gusts expected to reach 60 to 70 mph in some of the highest elevations, according PG&E forecasts.
The National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center in an overnight fire weather outlook report said that a 6,475-square-mile area of the western Sacramento Valley is likely to experience “extremely critical conditions” by Wednesday afternoon or evening. That area contains more than 280,000 residents and includes Vacaville, Clearlake and Red Bluff.
A map posted by the NWS Sacramento office showed gusts exceeding 30 mph recorded between 3 a.m. and 4:30 a.m. in areas just outside Red Bluff and Redding.
The NWS forecasts that valley winds will be highest Wednesday morning through the evening, while winds in the northern Sierra mountains will be strong Wednesday through early Thursday morning.
On Tuesday night from its headquarters in San Francisco, PG&E meteorologists said the winds haven’t been this strong since 2017, when powerful currents of air stoked a wildfire that devastated Sonoma and Napa counties, including the destruction of entire neighborhoods in Santa Rosa. Those fires killed 44 people.
Red flag warnings are in effect for the majority of Northern California through 5 p.m. Thursday. Low humidity combined with high winds, the NWS said, is a recipe for potentially catastrophic fires.
How Sacramento is affected
Sacramento County, which is served by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, is not expected to suffer any outages. SMUD officials, however, will be monitoring their power lines in the foothills. A SMUD spokesman said those lines are designed to withstand the wind speeds expected in those areas.
“We’re not on high alert, but we’re monitoring,” SMUD spokesman Chris Capra said. “The news that other utilities are doing public safety shut-offs concerns us, and makes us watch a little more closely.”
Residents in many foothill areas east of Sacramento will be affected. That includes residents in some cities that are not considered high fire hazard areas, PG&E said. More than 100,000 customers could lose power in El Dorado, Placer and Yolo counties, including portions of Winters, Esparto, Woodland, Davis, Dunnigan and Zamora.
“It is very possible that customers may be affected by a power shut-off even though they are not experiencing extreme weather in their area,” PG&E spokeswoman Brandi Merlo said. “That is because the electric system relies on power lines working together across cities, counties and regions.”
How Californians prepared
PG&E warned of the possibility of a widespread shut-off Monday morning, and expanded their projections to include the coast mountains in the state’s northwest and the Tehachapi Mountains at the southern base of the San Joaquin Valley. The urgent soundings prompted residents to flock to stores for supplies as they prepared for dying cellphone batteries, automatic garage doors that won’t work and lukewarm refrigerators.
“We sold out of lanterns this morning. The shelf is completely empty,” said Howard Gibbs, the manager at Ace Hardware in the Contra Costa County town of Lafayette. “We’ve got just a few flashlights left, and we’re down to our last couple propane tanks, too.”
PG&E and public health officials urge residents to think about what they need to sustain life and meet health care needs: Be sure you have water, nonperishable food and a first-aid kit on hand. Make a plan to keep insulin and other refrigerated medication cool. Know how to manually open garage doors and how to safely operate electric generators. If you aren’t well-versed in operating a generator, you risk being poisoned by carbon monoxide, shocked, electrocuted or burned.
Here are a few other things to consider: If pharmacies in your area close due to lack of power, do you have at least a week’s supply of medication on hand? Do you have battery chargers for medical equipment and cell phones, and are they charged? Do you have enough gas in your vehicle to drive an hour to get medical equipment or emergency medical services?
The University of California at Berkeley also advised people in power shut-off areas to charge their cell phones and other electronic devices before the power goes out. People can also charge their devices using the electricity from running cars and trucks.
Local government actions
Counties activated their emergency centers and authorities urged people to have supplies of water for several days, to keep sensitive medicines such as insulin in cool places, to drive carefully because traffic lights could be out, to have a full gas tank for emergencies and to check the food in freezers and refrigerators for spoilage after power is restored.
Hospitals and skilled nursing centers would operate on backup power, but other systems could see their generators fail after a few days. Outages even posed a threat that fire hydrants wouldn’t work at a time of extreme fire danger. While critical emergency city and county services were expected to operate, residents were urged to call ahead about routine office hours as many may be closed.
The East Bay Municipal Utility District, which serves Alameda and Contra Costa counties, recently spent $409,000 to rent 29 backup generators for use beginning at noon Wednesday.
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf asked residents Tuesday not to clog 911 lines with non-emergencies and urged people to be prepared. The city canceled all police officers’ days off in preparation for the outages.
“We all know the devastation that fires can cause,” she said.
In 1991, a grass fire torched the Oakland Hills, killing 25 people and destroying more than 3,000 homes.
School districts across the region called off school Wednesday and Thursday in anticipation of the blackout, affecting thousands of students and their families.
“We’re expecting the whole county to go dark. It’s a 90 percent probability. Everybody’s on standby,” said Nevada County Superintendent of Schools Scott Lay of his area. With concerns over food spoilage, Lay said that his office looked into purchasing generators but that the items had been back-ordered.
Officials in Shasta, El Dorado, Placer, Butte, Alameda, San Mateo, Calaveras, Sonoma and Napa counties were among the nearly 100 districts to close campus. College campus also planned to shutter for the next 24 to 48 hours.
The University of California, Berkeley, Sonoma State University and Mills College canceled classes Wednesday.
State officials in Sacramento and across California fanned out ahead of the shutdown.
Caltrans said it was installing generators to avoid closing the Caldecott Tunnel linking the East Bay to San Francisco and the Tom Lantos Tunnel, which goes through Devil’s Slide, on Highway 1 in Pacifica.
“The tunnels can’t operate without power,” Caltrans tweeted, after PG&E said the tunnels would be shut down because of the interruption.
BART, the sprawling commuter train in and around San Francisco, said its service was not expected to be affected.
Cal Fire also announced increased staffing levels during the wind event. Hand crews will be fully staffed and reserve fire engines will be on standby. A night reconnaissance aircraft was also stationed at McClellan Reload Base starting at 6 p.m. Tuesday to gather information on “emerging fires,” Cal Fire said.
The agency, formally known as the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said it has called crews in and deployed them at key spots around the state, anticipating the higher potential for fire. Spokesman Capt. Scott McLean pointed out that PG&E’s dramatic shut down will reduce the chance of wildfire, but fires can ignite for many other reasons, many of them caused by humans.
“Someone mowing or parking in dry grass, something that creates a spark,” McLean said.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom said PG&E had no choice given that it would have faced liability for fire damage but he said customers are right to feel outraged. The utility needs to upgrade and fix its equipment so massive outages aren’t the norm going forward, he said.
“No one is satisfied with this, no one is happy with this,” he said.
Anger over outages
Residents of the Sonoma County town of Cloverdale, population 9,300, were preparing for the possibility of zero power and downed internet and cellphone lines, as happened during the wine country fires. Cloverdale homes were not burned then, but residents were worried sick over family in burn zones and in the dark without communications, Mayor Melanie Bagby said.
She accused PG&E of failing to upgrade its equipment.
“It’s inexcusable that we’re in the situation that we’re in,” she said. “We pay our bills and we gave PG&E a monopoly to guarantee we would have” reliable power.
But Santa Rosa Mayor Tom Schwedhelm said he was grateful PG&E was taking proactive action. His city lost 5% of its housing in the 2017 Tubbs Fire, which killed 22 and torched nearly 6,000 structures in Sonoma and Napa counties. State investigators determined the fire was sparked by a private electrical system, and was not the fault of PG&E.
“I’d much rather do this than address what we had to address two years ago,” he said.
At the Dollar General store in Paradise, people were buying candles, gas cans, ice, flashlights, batteries and canned food, and the store ran out of ice chests Tuesday morning, manager Ben Humphries said.
Humphries, who moved to Oroville with his family after losing his home in Paradise, said there was a sense of irony to PG&E’s aggressive action in the area now after the company opted not to turn off the power ahead of the Nov. 8 fire that wiped out Paradise.
“I understand their concerns. But in my opinion, it’s too little too late. We already had our town burned to the ground,” Humphries said.