California utility cuts power to millions in multi-phase fire prevention effort

Members of a Santa Barbara County fire crew are seen on November 9, in Calabasas, Calif., fighting the Woolsey Fire. Utility PG&E began widespread power outages Wednesday to mitigate fire danger. File Photo by Capt. Tim Gailey/Santa Barbara County Fire Department

Oct. 9 (UPI) — With millions in California facing systemic power outages at some point Wednesday, the state’s largest utility said it has powered down neighborhoods in the San Francisco Bay area and central and northern regions as a wildfire mitigating method.

Pacific Gas & Electric said it had cut power to about 513,000 customers throughout California by mid-Wednesday. The move was part of the utility’s first phase of the preventative maneuver. PG&E said up to 900,000 homes it serves — serving more than 2 million people — face a planned outage through Wednesday and into Thursday.

The utility is making the power cuts to decrease wildfire risks, with strong winds forecast for parts of the state this week.

A second phase of power outages initially planned to take place at noon were delayed by a few hours due to a change in the weather forecast. A third phase may be scheduled later in the day.

Sonoma County saw 66,289 homes affected, the largest of the initial phase. Firefighters helped residents who were caught by surprise Wednesday.

“We’ve had several calls for elderly folks stuck in electric chairs, needing help getting out,” Sonoma Valley Fire Battalion Chief Spencer Andreis said. “It was very dark. Everything was out. Some of our major intersections weren’t even flashing, which is a big cause for concern.”

PG&E said it would shut off electricity to portions of 34 different counties. The first began began after midnight Tuesday.

The size of the blackout map is unprecedented. PG&E said communities not forecast to receive extreme weather may also have their power cut, as the vast electric system relies on power lines that work together.

“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.”

Fire officials determined in May that PG&E equipment caused the Camp Fire last November, which became the most destructive wildfire in California history and killed 85 people. It also burned nearly 14,000 homes and razed more than 150,000 acres of land.

Sumeet Singh, vice president of PG&E’s Community Wildlife Safety Program, said peak winds are expected to start early Wednesday.

Sonoma County’s superintendent told the Los Angeles Times the planned outages are a “blunt” approach, but “there’s an understanding of why it’s being undertaken.”

While the company has received much criticism from the public over its third power shut off in the last two months, Gov. Gavin Newsom defended the company and said the shutoff was in the public interest.

“The reality is that we want to protect people,” he said in Oakland Tuesday at a bill signing event. “We want to make sure people are safe. This is what PG&E thinks is in the best interest of their customers and ultimately for this region and the state.”


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