900,000 Californians Prepare for Another Blackout Wednesday

Sustained winds of 35 to 45 mph are expected to sweep across the dry vegetation of the North Bay mountains, East Bay hills and the Diablo range with gusts on peaks and ridges surpassing 60 mph.

by Carolyn Said and J.D. Morris, San Francisco Chronicle / November 19, 2019
In this Dec. 16, 2017, file photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, flames burn near power lines in Sycamore Canyon near West Mountain Drive in Montecito, Calif. AP

(TNS) — More than 900,000 people in 25 California counties — including every Bay Area county but San Francisco — could lose power starting Wednesday as windy, dry conditions will greatly increase fire risk.

PG&E said Monday that 303,000 homes and businesses — each one roughly equivalent to 3 people — could be impacted as the company tries to stop its power lines from starting more fires. In the Bay Area, about 115,000 homes and businesses, equivalent to 345,000 people, could be impacted.

A red flag warning, signaling high fire danger, is projected to begin at 4 a.m. Wednesday and continue through 7 a.m. Thursday, according to the National Weather Service. (Click here for the latest on the weather.)

Power shut-offs can last beyond the end of a red flag warning, because PG&E must inspect its equipment after the worst danger has passed. Still, the expected outages this week appear likely to be shorter term than October’s multi-day outages.

Sustained winds of 35 to 45 mph from the north and northeast are expected to sweep across the dry vegetation of the North Bay mountains, East Bay hills and the Diablo range with gusts on peaks and ridges surpassing 60 miles per hour. The combination of strong winds, low humidity and dried-out vegetation could quickly turn a small blaze into a raging wildfire.

Counties and cities in potentially affected areas said they’ve begun the now-familiar process of preparing to have residents and businesses in the dark, although shut-offs are still not definite.

“We’re making a lot of contingency plans,” said Laine Hendricks, a spokeswoman for Marin County. “The data are still pretty fluid; we’re all functioning on ‘maybes’ right now.”

Those plans include ensuring that emergency facilities have backup power, notifying residents of the outage possibility, trying to determine which county operations could be in outage areas, and preparing to reassign county employees — who by state law are disaster services workers — to other positions, as necessary.

The Marin County sheriff said 23,345 homes and businesses — more than a quarter of the county — could be affected by an outage projected to start Wednesday around 4 p.m. In October’s shut-off, virtually the entire county lost power. The weather could clear by 8 a.m. Thursday, the sheriff’s office said, but power restoration could take 24 to 48 hours after that.

In Novato, which PG&E maps showed could be hard-hit, City Manager Adam McGill said officials hope the outage will be relatively short, lasting less than 24 hours. “That should be easier for people to accommodate; they can bed down for the night, so to speak.”

“It’s starting to become a little routine — unfortunately,” McGill said. Police are readying makeshift stop signs to deploy wherever traffic lights are out.

 

In Moraga, Orinda and Lafayette, outages could begin around 9 a.m. Wednesday, the Moraga Police Department said Monday, with the all-clear being given to restore power around 8 a.m. Thursday. Some 4,823 PG&E customers in Moraga — the vast majority of the town — could be affected, with 18,584 PG&E customers (equal to about 56,000 people) across the three communities impacted. PG&E said it expects 23,230 customers in Contra Costa County — in Canyon, El Sobrante, Lafayette, Moraga, Orinda, Pinole, Pleasant Hill and Richmond — could be affected.

In Alameda County, PG&E said 12,200 homes and businesses in Berkeley, Oakland and San Leandro could be impacted. The city of Berkeley said on Twitter that shut-offs were expected to begin Wednesday morning.

In Sonoma County, outages could hit 39,940 customers in a lengthy list of cities: Annapolis, Bodega, Bodega Bay, Calistoga, Cazadero, Cloverdale, Duncans Mills, Forestville, Geyserville, Glen Ellen, Guerneville, Healdsburg, Jenner, Kenwood, Monte Rio, Penngrove, Rio Nido, Santa Rosa, Sonoma, Sea Ranch, Stewarts Point, Villa Grande and Windsor.

“This is hard on everybody,” said Jeff Duvall, deputy director of Sonoma County Emergency Management. His department is working on getting the word out, setting up contingency plans and readying its emergency operations center in Santa Rosa.

Although the county has weathered multiple outages this year, not to mention the Kincade Fire, “no two events are ever the same,” he said. “Things change very rapidly. We have to be ready to adapt and respond.”

In Napa County, 11,180 accounts in Angwin, Calistoga, Deer Park, Lake Berryessa, Napa, Oakville, Pope Valley, Rutherford and Yountville could be blacked out, PG&E said. In Solano County, the figure was 1,970 in Fairfield, Suisun City and Vacaville.

PG&E said blackouts could affect 70 accounts in San Mateo County, in La Honda and Pescadero, and 2,978 accounts in Santa Clara County, specifically in Cupertino, Gilroy, La Honda, Los Gatos, Redwood Estates, Saratoga and Watsonville.

Government workers who deal with medically fragile people are doing extra outreach.

Residents “who rely on electricity for medical equipment are vulnerable,” said Dr. Matt Willis, Marin County public health officer. “We are reaching out to see if they are aware an outage is coming, if they have a plan, have they contacted their medical providers.”

Part of the new normal for doctor-patient relationships in the age of blackouts now must be for doctors to offer support to patients who rely on equipment such as oxygen concentrators, he said. “It’s a new muscle for physicians to think that way.”

For vulnerable residents who lack resources to outlast the blackout, the county may arrange home visits from public health nurses, its volunteer medical reserve corps or the Aging and Adult Services Department staff, he said.

Elsewhere in Northern California, counties that could have tens of thousands of homes and businesses in the dark, according to PG&E, include El Dorado (38,570 accounts), Lake (13,370), Butte (14,110), Nevada (30,030), Placer (12,440) and Shasta (21,720).

PG&E on Monday increased its blackout forecast to “watch,” after which it would designate a “warning” if it decides to follow through with the blackouts.

“There is still considerable uncertainty regarding the strength, timing and humidity levels with this system and some changes in the forecast are possible moving forward,” PG&E’s forecast said. “Nonetheless, there is an increasing possibility that gusty winds will result in critical fire weather conditions.”

In some cities and counties, spokespeople said they could barely even count up exactly how many PG&E outages they’ve experienced this year.

“I believe this is No. 7 for us,” said Sonoma County’s Duvall.

“Residents are having outage fatigue,” said Marin County’s Hendricks.

Chronicle staff writer Michael Cabanatuan contributed to this report.

Carolyn Said and J.D. Morris are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: csaid@sfchronicle.com, jd.morris@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @csaid, @thejdmorris

———

©2019 the San Francisco Chronicle

Visit the San Francisco Chronicle at www.sfchronicle.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Platforms & Programs