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PG&E Shut-Offs Could Be Disastrous, California Officials Say

PG&E has used its aggressive new strategy to prevent its equipment from starting another fire only on one weekend so far this year. But the utility is poised to turn off the lights much more in the coming months.

Aftermath of wildfires in Butte County, California, 2018
Two young deer stand in the rubble of a home in Paradise, Calif. on Sunday, Nov. 11, 2018.
(TNS) — Northern California communities hit by some of the worst wildfires the state has ever seen are now preparing for another kind of disaster: prolonged power shut-offs caused intentionally by Pacific Gas and Electric Co.

PG&E has used its aggressive new strategy to prevent its equipment from starting another fire only on one weekend so far this year. But the utility is poised to turn off the lights much more often in the coming months as hot, dry and windy weather persists during the most dangerous part of wildfire season.

The impacts may be extreme and unprecedented, cutting entire cities off from the electric grid for several days in the worst-case scenarios. In those instances, stoplights and even cell phones could stop working properly, local officials say, snarling traffic and hamstringing residents’ ability to communicate.

“You can imagine the chaos that would ensue,” Chico Police Chief Michael O’Brien said of possible shut-offs in his city. “How do you ready a population of 112,000 people without power and means for communication?”

Chico knows the risk of a utility-caused wildfire all too well. A PG&E tower east of the city broke in November and started the Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in state history, virtually destroying the nearby town of Paradise. Thousands of Camp Fire victims moved to Chico afterward.

As he considered the prospect of the entire city losing power for as long as a week, O’Brien asked Chico City Council members Tuesday to preemptively authorize curfews when PG&E turns off electricity. He’s concerned about how the blackouts would affect traffic, communication and home security. The city has not yet made a decision about the proposed curfew; officials are continuing to study it alongside other preparation measures.

Other cities and counties around PG&E’s service territory are also planning for blackouts. The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approved a new emergency response plan Tuesday to guide the local government’s response when power is cut off in the area, which is still recovering from the Wine Country wildfires of October 2017. Marin County officials discussed their plans Tuesday as well.

Some Sonoma County elected leaders had sharp criticism of PG&E’s shut-off plans.

“In an effort for PG&E not to be more vulnerable, in terms of losses and litigation, they are making all of us more vulnerable,” Supervisor Shirlee Zane told her colleagues. “It could be absolutely catastrophic on so many levels.”

Sonoma County’s emergency manager, Chris Godley, estimates that the region could lose power as much as six times a year based on PG&E’s current plans. Though the company has said its shut-offs could affect any of its electric customers — even those in San Francisco — PG&E provided Sonoma County with a map showing which circuits there are more likely to lose power, Godley said.

Those power lines serve 90% of the land in the county and 400,000 of its roughly 500,000 residents, he said, though they are not likely to all experience a shut-off at the same time.

If the most widespread scenario occurs and lasts for 24 hours, businesses in the county could lose as much as $35 million, according to Godley. Fuel could become scarce if the shut-off is widespread and long. The county is not planning to preemptively authorize curfews during power shut-offs, but could implement one during a shut-off if necessary, Godley said.

“Overall, it’s a bit of a parade of horribles, to be honest, and we’re very concerned,” Santa Rosa Emergency Preparedness Coordinator Neil Bregman said at the supervisors’ meeting. “PG&E has not necessarily been as forthcoming as we’d love to see on what potential scenarios look like. So we’re kind of taking a stab in the dark.”

Bregman later stressed that residents should be concerned but should not consider the shut-offs “absolute Armageddon,” saying the most dire possibilities remain “a very unlikely scenario.”

PG&E implemented its first power shut-off last year because of the 2017 wildfires, many of which were started by the company’s power lines. But the original program did not include the kind of high-voltage tower that caused the Camp Fire because shutting those down can affect many more customers. Now, PG&E is willing to turn off any power line, which is why people living in areas far from dangerous weather conditions may be part of a blackout.

PG&E has not publicly estimated how often or severe the shut-offs will be as fire-prone weather picks up.

“It’s good that local governments are talking about all these things, because that’s what we’re encouraging people to do,” said company spokesman Jeff Smith. “But in terms of being able to provide advance information — this many customers are likely to be affected, or this many of any particular county or it’s going to happen this many times per year — it’s just impossible to predict.”

The company says it is trying to ease the impacts of its shut-offs, including by reaching out to organizations that work with disabled people — who are among the most vulnerable during shut-offs, particularly if they rely on a breathing machine or other electric equipment.

Local governments are keeping that in mind as they prepare for potential shut-offs. In Butte County, for example, officials maintain a list of about 5,000 people with “access and functional needs” who might need help during a disaster or evacuation, said Deputy Administrative Officer Casey Hatcher.

County officials tapped into the list when PG&E turned off power to some areas in June, and they plan to do so if it happens again. They are also looking to access a list PG&E keeps of customers with extra electric needs for medical reasons to see if any of them need to be added to that list, Hatcher said.

Local governments are planning for how to maintain their essential services when the power goes out, too, and encouraging their residents to do the same. In Lake County, which has been repeatedly burned by large wildfires in recent years, the preparation includes adding backup generators to radio signal equipment that does not yet have one, said Sheriff Brian Martin.

“We’re being told by PG&E that it’s very likely to happen,” Martin said. “We’re telling people to get ready. We’re getting ready ourselves.”

Lake County was acutely impacted by PG&E’s first planned shut-off in October. Martin was among many local leaders who criticized the implementation by PG&E, but he said he’s “much more optimistic” this year, now that the community has had time to get ready.

Still, the specter of widespread shut-offs comes with a host of uncertainties.

One is how much warning communities will have about an impending shut-off. PG&E says it will try to give 48 hours’ notice, but the company did not meet that goal when it turned off the power in June.

Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said she is concerned about what would happen if another wildfire broke out during a shut-off — sparked by something other than a power line.

“That’s my biggest fear,” she said at the meeting Tuesday.

Smith, the PG&E spokesman, acknowledged that fear could become reality.

“We understand there are risks,” he said. “Just as there are risks to leaving the power on when there are extremely dangerous fire conditions in place.”

State regulators approved new utility power shut-off standards in May that require companies such as PG&E to use an intentional shut-off only as a “measure of last resort,” among other requirements. They are working on developing even more shut-off rules.

At the same time, PG&E has been installing devices that allow it to better isolate parts of the grid that are turned off.

“We are continually looking to improve our technology and our processes to make these as infrequent as we can,” Smith said.

J.D. Morris is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @thejdmorris


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