California

Update: PG&E blackouts hit Northern California. Another outage possible this weekend

PG&E Corp. shut off the lights to thousands of customers in the Sierra foothills and the North Bay on Wednesday as it began its second major deliberate blackout in two weeks — and warned that it might have to pull the plug again this weekend.

The troubled utility, citing dangerous winds that could cause wildfires, said it would eventually cut power to 179,000 households and businesses in 17 Northern and Central California counties.

PG&E said the gusting winds could cause trees to come into contact with power lines or other equipment and said low humidity had dried out vegetation throughout its territory. The National Weather Service issued a red flag warning for much of Northern and Central California until Thursday afternoon.

Despite intense criticism from Gov. Gavin Newsom and other officials about the blackouts, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. started de-energizing parts of its grid shortly after 2 p.m. in nearly a dozen foothill counties, the Napa and Sonoma wine country and parts of Lake and Mendocino counties, which suffered devastation during fires in 2017 and 2018.

Communities went dark in parts of El Dorado, Calaveras, Placer and Yuba counties, including areas around such population centers as Auburn and Placerville. The power outages in Butte County included Paradise, Magalia and Concow, the communities ravaged by the Camp Fire last November. Cal Fire has blamed a faulty PG&E transmission tower for igniting the Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in California history.

Also blacked out: portions of Alpine, Amador, Nevada, Plumas, Sierra and Tehama counties. The utility said it would shut off power shortly after midnight Thursday in parts of San Mateo and Kern counties, for a total of 17 counties.

“This wind event looks like a California-wide phenomenon,” said PG&E meteorologist Scott Strenfel, noting that Southern California Edison has alerted more than 300,000 households they could go dark.

The lights remained on in Sacramento County, which is served by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District. A SMUD spokesman emailed: “Based on the forecasted system conditions, SMUD does not anticipate having any issues as winds are expected to be (north to northeast) at 15 to 25 mph with gusts at 30 to 40 mph for Wednesday and Thursday.”

PG&E said it believes it can restore power to “the vast majority of customers within 48 hours after the weather has passed.” The winds were expected to ease off Thursday afternoon in the foothills and Bay Area and Friday afternoon in Kern County.

However, another blackout could occur this weekend, utility officials indicated. On a weather map posted on its website, PG&E said there was an “elevated” chance of more shutoffs Saturday, Sunday and Monday. That shutoff could take in most of PG&E’s vast service territory.

“This could be the strongest wind event of the season, unfortunately,” Strenfel, the company meteorologist, said at a news conference at company headquarters in San Francisco. The winds might be worse than the gusts that prompted the massive Oct. 9 shutdown, but the company wouldn’t estimate how many customers might lose power.

Bill Johnson, the utility’s CEO, pushed back on social media speculation that PG&E would simply allow the current shutdown to bleed into the blackout that might occur this weekend. He insisted the company would restore power as soon as possible.

The size of PG&E’s “public safety power shutoff” was dialed back slightly from what was expected earlier in the week. It was originally targeting 209,000 customers.

The shutdown left thousands of customers angry.

“I’m sure it’s frustrating to everybody that’s trying to run a business,” said Cindy Bond, who works at a dental office in blacked-out Coloma. “It’s not only hurting the employer, it’s hurting the employees.”

Ace Hardware in Meadow Vista was open, thanks to a backup generator, and was doing a major business in batteries and other essentials. But co-owner David Lease wasn’t thrilled about it.

“They’re buying in huge quantities, bulk, panic buying,” he said. “It’s good for the bottom line, but I don’t like this kind of spending. Nobody’s leaving happy. They’re leaving slightly less scared.”

Johnson, the CEO, said a PG&E truck traveling through Glenn County was struck by what appeared to be a pellet from a pellet gun. He pleaded with customers not to take out their anger on employees.

“There is no justification for this sort of violence,” he said.

PG&E, driven into bankruptcy by billions in wildfire damages from 2017 and 2018, has become aggressive about shutting off power to portions of its grid when high winds kick up. Earlier this month it cut power to 738,000 customers for parts of four days, triggering a storm of criticism from Newsom and others that the utility went overboard in blacking out such a wide area.

The outage two weeks ago caught many Northern California residents off guard. PG&E apologized for communications failures with customers and pledged to do better. Customers began seeing warnings Monday.

Chris Slater, who lives with family in the hills outside of Grass Valley, said the utility company was “going over the top” in its notifications this week.

Map of PG&E Safety shutoffs

Areas where PG&E anticipates public safety power shutoffs on Wednesday and Thursday, Oct. 23-24:
Source: PG&E

“There is plenty of notice this is happening,” he said. He said he has gotten text, email and phone alerts. He’s even heard radio alerts.

The Slater family has a generator that will run their TV, internet, lights and water. Slater said he prefers the inconvenience of a power outage to the possibility of a utility-caused wildfire, but said, “it feels like we shouldn’t have to choose.”

For David Rott, losing power at his Auburn home means he needs to go find somewhere to charge his oxygen concentrator, which he needs to cope with his COPD. When the power was cut off earlier this month, he slept in his truck for a night, where he could charge the device, then got a hotel the following night.

When he learned that the power will be cut again Wednesday, he said he would again have to get a hotel, probably in Rocklin or Roseville. “I’m just gonna get a motel and hang out and just keep watching the news,” said Rott, 65. “When they say the power’s back on, I’ll go home.”

Rott doesn’t plan to go to the PG&E “resource center” in Auburn to charge his device, like he did last time, because they close at 8 p.m., he said. His concentrator needs to be charged every seven hours.

Rott said he wished PG&E did more for those with medical conditions during the blackouts. “They should have already had something in place so when the power gets shut off, they can say OK go here and they got you a room set up, a motel room or whatever,” he said. “They should already have that in place.”

At around 11 a.m. Wednesday, he said he had not yet received an email from PG&E notifying him of the shutoff, which began about three hours later.

The blackout is the eighth such safety shutdown — and the second largest — PG&E has instituted since the company’s equipment caused the Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in California history. Previously, the utility had been reluctant to purposely shut down power.

The company has increased its efforts this year to clear trees and brush around power lines. But officials say high wind gusts in mountain and canyon areas represent too high a threat.

PG&E executives cited evidence of wind-damaged equipment after the most recent shutdown, which took place Oct. 9-12, and said they believe their decision probably prevented another big fire.

Earlier this week, the company brushed aside a demand by Newsom to reimburse customers for spoiled food and other losses. Spokeswoman Lynsey Paulo said reimbursing customers would further complicate the utility’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy case.

School districts began to announce closures Wednesday, including Indian Diggings and Pioneer Union districts in Somerset. Several other school districts were closely monitoring the shutoff updates. El Dorado County said it would close a number of county government buildings Thursday if the power remained off, including libraries in Placerville, Georgetown and Pollock Pines.

PG&E said it will open “community resource centers” at 8 a.m. Thursday for customers to get bottled water, charge their cell phones and cool off in the air conditioning. Each center can accommodate 100 people. The centers will be open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. each day until power is restored. The locations:

  • Bear Valley: Bear Valley Transportation Center, 132 Bear Valley Rd.
  • Jackson: St. Katharine Drexel Catholic Parish, 11361 Prospect Drive
  • Pioneer: Mace Meadows Golf Course, 26570 Fairway Drive
  • Chico: Costco, 2100 Martin Luther King Parkway
  • Magalia: Strip Mall, 14144 Lakeridge Court
  • Oroville: Bird Street School, 1421 Bird St.
  • Arnold: Meadowmont Shopping Center, 2182 Hwy 4
  • Murphys: Black Bart Players, 580 S. Algiers St.
  • Georgetown: Buffalo Hill Center, 6023 Front Street 37
  • Placerville: Former Sheriff’s Office, 300 Fair Lane
  • Pollock Pines: Knotty Pine Lanes, 2667 Sanders Drive
  • Lakeport: Konocti Vista Casino, 2755 Mission Rancheria Road
  • Middletown: Twin Pine Casino, 22223 Hwy 29
  • Calistoga: Napa County Fairgrounds, 1435 N. Oak St.
  • Grass Valley: Sierra College, 250 Sierra College Drive
  • Penn Valley: Penn Valley Community Church, 11739 Spenceville Road
  • Auburn: Gold Country Fairgrounds, 209 Fairgate Road
  • Foresthill: Canyon View Assembly Church, 23221 Forest Hill Road
  • Lincoln: McBean Pavilion Parking lot, 75 McBean Park Drive
  • Cloverdale: Cloverdale Citrus Fair, 1 Citrus Fair
  • Santa Rosa: Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building, 1351 Maple Ave.
  • Sonoma: Hanna Boys Center, 17000 Arnold Drive
  • Oregon House: Alcouffe Center, 9185 Marysville Road
  • West Point: VFW post 3322, 202 Spink Road
  • Potter Valley: Potter Valley Bible Church, 10151 Main St.
Listen to our daily briefing:

Related stories from Modesto Bee

Dale Kasler covers climate change, the environment, economics and the convoluted world of California water. He also covers major enterprise stories for McClatchy’s Western newspapers. He joined The Bee in 1996 from the Des Moines Register and graduated from Northwestern University.
  Comments