CALIFORNIA — Thousands of customers of California’s largest utility braced Saturday for days without power as fires rage throughout the state.
Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) confirmed the utility will cut power to some 940,000 customers in what it called a “public safety power shutoff” across 36 counties during what could be an unprecedented wind event.
“As this weather system sweeps from north to south over a period of two to three days, PG&E customers across Northern and Central California will feel the effects of hot, dry winds at different times, which means outage times will vary as well,” the utility said in a statement.
The projected impact is 90,000 more customers than its earlier estimate. Power will be turned off in phases. Customers should prepare to be without power at least two days once the severe weather has passed, the utility said.
The outage is intended to prevent a “catastrophic wildfire” during what is expected to be particularly dry and windy weather, officials said.
More than seven million people will be under red flag warnings Saturday across the Sacramento Valley, with critical to extreme fire dangers over the coming days.
High wind warnings and advisories remain in place across much of northern California as winds increase throughout the day and peak Saturday evening and overnight, according to CNN meteorologists.
San Jose ‘power vulnerability plan’ months in the making, officials say
PG&E has been under scrutiny in recent years for the role its equipment played in several devastating fires across the state, including last year’s deadly Camp Fire. Over the last weeks, the utility has been enacting preventative shutoffs all over northern and central California, but this weekend’s could be the largest this year.
The 36 counties losing power, the utility said, include Humboldt, the Sierra foothills, Western Sacramento Valley and the greater Bay Area. Paradise, which was devastated by last year’s deadly Camp Fire, is also among the areas to be left in the dark.
In San Jose, City Manager Kip Harkness told reporters the city has a plan in place for the outage.
The outage could affect as many as 90,000 people in the San Jose area but “we expect it to be a little lower than that,” Harkness said.
If power remains off into Monday, Harkness said, individual school districts will determine whether to close schools.
“Take care of yourself and your family and then, if you’re OK, take a little moment across the hall, across the street and check in on your neighbor,” he said. “See how’s she’s doing, make sure she has what she needs to make sure she’s safe.
San Jose officials said the city has activated a “power vulnerability plan” that was months in the works.
PG&E said the utility will start by shutting off power at 2 p.m. (local time) Saturday in parts of rthe counties of Amador, Butte, Colusa, El Dorado, Glenn, Nevada, Placer, Plumas, San Joaquin, Sierra, Siskiyou, Shasta, Tehama and Yuba.
The outages will be staggered, with the sixth and final phase beginning at 10 a.m. (local time) Sunday in Kern County.
The news of the outage comes as the utility is in the process of restoring power to about 179,000 customers in Northern California. Power was restored to 99% of its customers on Friday, with the exception of Sonoma County where the Kincade Fire continues burning, the utility said.
Winds fanning the flames
Strong winds have been fueling the Kincade fire in Sonoma County for several days but forecasters say stronger wind gusts are expected to begin Saturday.
The fire, burning northeast of Geyserville in Sonoma County, had burned 25,455 acres and was 10% contained as of Saturday morning, according to the California Department of Foresty and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire. The blaze threatens 23,500 structures and has destroyed 49 structures.
Mandatory evacuations were expanded Saturday for more than 50,000 people, including the entire city of Healdsburg and the town of Windsor. Officials said the prolonged wind event will lead to fire spreading rapidly and erratically.
“We do not take this lightly,” Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick told reporters. “We’re evacuating because this fire is very dangerous and it’s expected to move towards Healdsburg and Windsor this evening.”
Essick said authorities want the areas evacuated no later than 4 p.m. local time.
“The upcoming wind event has the potential to be one of the strongest in the last several years. It’s also likely to be longer than recent wind events, which have lasted about 12 hours or less,” said Scott Strenfel, a PG&E meteorologist.
Forecasters are expecting winds of 30-55 mph with gusts of 60-80 mph beginning Saturday night, the National Weather Service said. The winds can blow down trees, power lines and made it difficult for most vehicles to travel, including those pulling trailers.
“This will be a long duration and potentially extreme/historic even across the North Bay,” the weather service in San Francisco said in an advisory.
The weekend winds could be strongest recorded in the area since several fires devastated California’s wine country in 2017. High winds, dry conditions fanned the flames in Sonoma and Napa counties, forcing thousands to evacuate and killing dozens.