By Mike Branom / The Washington Post
With red-flag warnings in place and an “extreme” fire risk for parts of northern California on Wednesday that is expected to shift south Thursday, a bout of strong and prolonged winds is prompting Pacific Gas & Electric not to take chances.
Because the utility giant does not want to risk its grid infrastructure sparking yet another killer wildfire, 800,000 PG&E customers in 34 northern, central and coastal counties (2-plus million people) are having their power cut Wednesday — perhaps for days. As the wind threat spreads to the south, shutdowns also will effect those in the Southland.
Forecasts call for offshore gusts of warm, bone-dry air up to 70 mph in the mountains and foothills through Friday, leading the company to concede it is better for people to lose lights, the Internet and other trappings of civilization in a “public safety power shut-off” rather than their lives.
To sound the alarm for strong winds in warm, low-humidity conditions with dry vegetation, National Weather Service offices across the state issued red-flag warnings. Such warnings are typically issued when gusty winds, low relative humidity and high temperatures mingle to create fire and fire growth potential.
Additionally, the NOAA/NWS Storm Prediction Center’s fire weather outlook through Thursday painted “critical” fire danger across much of California, including two pockets of “extreme” conditions, one in the north Wednesday and the other in the south Thursday.
The winds that will be spreading any potential conflagration stem from a powerful storm system expected to wreak havoc across much of the West. The Weather Prediction Center is forecasting heavy snow and strong winds across parts of the northern Rockies and northern Plains, along with record cold temperatures possible across the Northwest on Thursday.
It was less than a year ago when power lines and windy, dry conditions in remote Butte County brewed into the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history. The Camp Fire killed 85, incinerating the bucolic Sierra Nevada foothills town of Paradise. Since then, PG&E has declared bankruptcy.
Other power companies across the state announced they were taking the same precautionary measures as PG&E, or at least considering the same. Southern California Edison said shut-offs could hit nearly 174,000 customers; for San Diego Gas and Electric, the tally approaches 29,000.
The first wave of PG&E’s shut-offs began early Wednesday. Among the 513,000 customers to lose electricity were those in Wine Country, as Sonoma and Napa counties went dark before the break of dawn.
As of midmorning Wednesday, gusts of 24 mph were reported in Sacramento, and while temperatures in the Central Valley were expected to climb into the upper 70s, dew points were in the low- to mid-30s. Wind speeds and high gusts are expected to increase into Wednesday night before spreading south.
The Sacramento Bee reported that 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.”
Of course, such a widespread disruption to the power grid is certain to pack numerous adverse consequences.
For example, the publication CalMatters reported PG&E’s actions will keep 108,000 schoolchildren, from more than 260 schools in 50 districts across 14 counties, out of classrooms Wednesday. The University of California-Berkeley canceled classes for the day, with a decision about the rest of the week to come midday Wednesday.
To help mitigate the inconveniences, PG&E has set up “Community Resource Centers,” where people without power can access restrooms, bottled water, electronic-device charging and seating in climate-controlled conditions.
Although PG&E announced the shut-offs nearly two days before the windstorm’s arrival, there were struggles getting the word out. On Tuesday morning, the utility’s website was down; that evening, the site was prompting the Firefox browser to issue a warning of a potential security risk.
Beyond the problems with its communications, PG&E’s strategy of cutting power to save lives also came under criticism for its unsustainability. Suggested long-term remedies are microgrids, buried lines and better building standards.