Power coming back in Northern California as fire danger eases

SAN FRANCISCO — The lights were back on Friday for more than half of the nearly 2 million Northern California residents who lost electricity after Pacific Gas & Electric Co. switched it off earlier this week to prevent its equipment from sparking wildfires during dry, windy weather.

But the threat of widespread outages loomed in Southern California after the winds moved to the Los Angeles area, where a wildfire fueled by strong Santa Ana winds prompted officials to order the evacuation of 100,000 people from their homes in foothills of the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles County.

PG&E restored the power in Northern California after workers inspected power lines to make sure it was safe to do so. The winds had increased the possibility of transmission lines toppling to the ground and starting wildfires.

The utility said 426,000 Northern California businesses and residences got their power back — but that 312,000 customers were still in the dark. About half of those who lost power in the San Francisco Bay Area had it again on Friday. The city itself was not subject to the preventive outages. Experts have said there are between two and three people for every electrical customer.

Some people in the largely rural Butte, Plumas and Yuba counties and in Northern California’s famed wine country counties were in their third day without electricity.

Butte County is where a fire started by PG&E equipment last year decimated the town of Paradise and killed 85 people. In Napa and Sonoma counties north of San Francisco, the outages began on the two-year anniversary of deadly wildfires that killed 44 and destroyed thousands of homes.

In the mountainous Butte County community of Magalia, Jay Middleton spent $4,500 to buy three generators and fuel — but the four space heaters the generators were powering during his family’s three-day ordeal without electricity were not enough to keep his family warm with temperatures dropping to the low 30s (0 Centigrade) at night.

And the generator didn’t work to power the family’s electric stove. Middleton and his wife were trying to keep their children entertained with ball games, wrestling matches and movies but planned to rent a hotel room if the power does not come back soon.

“The kids are bickering and fighting a bit more,” Middletown said. “No one is getting good sleep, no one is getting to shower, we’re not getting good meals. The tension is growing.”

Power won’t be restored to the county in the Sierra Nevada foothills where Middletown lives and other places until PG&E crews inspect power lines before they can be re-energized.

Getting to those remote areas is challenging for the crews and that’s prolonging the outages, said Jeff Smith, a PG&E spokesman.

“We understand that our customers are frustrated, particularly customers who have been without power for several days, but the inspection process in remote areas can be a little more challenging,” he said.

PG&E said in a statement that employees located 11 spots where parts of its systems were damaged during the strong winds, but Smith said he could not provide damage details or specific locations. That information will be in a state-mandated report the utility must give regulators within 10 business days after the outage ends.

PG&E faced hostility and second-guessing over the shut-offs, which prompted runs on supplies like coolers and generators and forced institutions to shut down. The University of California, Berkeley, was closed Friday for the third day.

Ryan Fisher, a partner in consumer goods and retail practice at global consultancy A.T. Kearney estimated $100 million in $200 million in fresh food was likely lost because of the outages along with $30 million a day in consumer spending.

PG&E cast the blackouts as a matter of public safety to prevent the kind of blazes that have killed scores of people over the past couple of years, destroyed thousands of homes, and ran up tens of billions of dollars in claims that drove the company into bankruptcy.

The utility suggested it was already seeing the wisdom of its decision borne out as gusts topping 77 mph (122 kph) raked some hilltops where wildfire risk was extremely high.

“We have found multiple cases of damage or hazards” caused by heavy winds, including fallen branches into overhead lines, said Sumeet Singh, a vice president for the utility.

Utility CEO Bill Johnson promised if future wind events require similar shut-offs, the utility will “do better” at communicating with customers. It’s unacceptable that its website crashed, maps were inconsistent and call centers were overloaded, Johnson said.

“We were not adequately prepared,” he said.

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