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As its leaders tour Paradise, PG&E warns it may cut power amid extreme CA fire risk

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As its leaders toured the town burned out by the state’s worst fire in history, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. says it is monitoring Northern California weather and might enact public safety power shutoffs Saturday or Sunday, the first this year, that could affect dozens of cities amid “extreme” fire risk conditions in the Sierra foothills and North Bay Area.

The National Weather Service’s Sacramento and Bay Area offices on Friday morning put Red Flag Warnings into effect for most of the weekend, as high temperatures, low humidity and gusty winds will combine to create a critical threat of fire activity.

PG&E said a potential public safety power shutoff could occur within the next 18 to 36 hours, in an advisory tweet and news release about 12:30 p.m. Friday.

California Assemblyman James Gallagher, whose district includes Butte and Yuba counties, shared PG&E’s announcement almost immediately to his official Facebook page, warning that areas affected in a potential shutdown in those two counties would include parts of Paradise, Chico, Oroville, Berry Creek, Browns Valley, Marysville, Wheatland and other nearby areas.

“I wanted to notify you of an announcement from PG&E this morning that it might proactively turn power off in several Northern California counties within the next 18 to 36 hours to reduce the risk of wildfire,” Gallagher wrote. “Power might be shut off starting around 9 p.m. on Saturday with the peak period of fire risk lasting until 10 a.m. on Sunday.”

PG&E says it is working with Cal Fire and the state Office of Emergency Services, as well as monitoring National Weather Service data, to monitor conditions.

“To help reduce the risk of wildfire and keep our customers, their families and their homes and businesses safe, the company may be turning off power in areas of the North Bay and the Sierra foothills where extreme fire risks exist,” PG&E said in a news release.

Other cities where power may be shut off include parts of Davis, Winters, Vacaville, Auburn, Suisun City, Lincoln, Napa, and Lake Berryessa, as well as other portions of Butte, Yuba, Nevada, El Dorado, Placer, Yolo, Solano and Napa counties, according to the news release.

“We know how much our customers rely on electric service and would only consider temporarily turning off power in the interest of safety during extreme weather conditions,” Michael Lewis, PG&E’s senior vice president of electric operations, said in a prepared statement.

The announcement came as top leaders of PG&E Corp. toured the area devastated by the Camp Fire.

The tour, which was ordered last month by the federal judge overseeing the utility’s criminal probation, took place Friday but details of the trip were closely guarded. The San Francisco Chronicle published photographs showing the group of leaders in Paradise on Friday.

Paradise Mayor Jody Jones and Town Council member Michael Zuccolillo said they met with PG&E Chief Executive Bill Johnson when he toured their town privately about two weeks ago. At the time, Johnson told them he and the PG&E board of directors — a group of 13 high-powered financial and energy executives — would visit Friday.

The Chronicle reported that a large white bus carrying Johnson and U.S. District Judge William Alsup, among others, pulled up to the Paradise Performing Arts Center and “filed into a room in the back of the building.” Both the Chronicle and a Bee reporter in Paradise were rebuffed by officials during the day, and the leaders did not answer any questions of journalists who had spotted the group.

“It is a private thing, at the order of Judge Alsup, to impress upon the board and the new chief executive of PG&E about the magnitude of what their company caused,” said Mark Noel, Butte County’s supervising deputy district attorney. The DA’s office helped coordinate the executives’ visit. “It is not a social thing, not a press thing.”

At about the same time Johnson took over in April, the company overhauled its board of directors to put a greater emphasis on leaders with expertise in utility safety. The new board chairwoman is Nora Mead Brownell, a former commissioner of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

But its board also includes several executives from the world of finance, causing Gov. Gavin Newsom and other state officials to accuse the company of putting profits ahead of safety. Among the directors are Richard Barrera, founder of New York hedge fund Roystone Capital Management; Kenneth Liang, a former managing director with Los Angeles investment firm Oaktree Capital Management; and Eric Mullins, co-CEO of Lime Rock Resources, an energy-investment firm based in Houston.

Company representatives seen at Friday’s trip would not provide the Chronicle the names of everyone on the trip. PG&E spokesman James Noonan declined comment Thursday, referring a reporter to the U.S. Probation Office, which is coordinating the trip.

A spokeswoman for the department, Lynn Fuller, said in an email to The Bee: “For security reasons, the Court will not at this time say when or where the event will be or whether it has already occurred; the Court will release a further statement in due course.”

Cal Fire has declared that November’s Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and destroyed 90 percent of Paradise’s housing stock, was caused by malfunctioning PG&E equipment.

Alsup, who has been critical of PG&E’s safety record, ordered Johnson and the board of directors to tour Paradise by mid-July. In his written order last month, Alsup told the executives to get “a firsthand understanding of the harm inflicted on those communities and meet with victims and others stakeholders, such as fire-fighting personnel and/or city officials.”

Alsup has taken a supervisory role in PG&E’s affairs because the company is on probation after being found guilty in connection with the 2010 pipeline explosion that killed eight people in San Bruno.

The company has pledged to spend $105 million helping Camp Fire survivors with living expenses.

Facing an estimated $30 billion in liabilities from the Camp Fire and the 2017 wine country fires, PG&E filed for bankruptcy in January. The company has come under intense pressure from state officials to reform its corporate culture and improve its safety record.

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Michael McGough anchors The Sacramento Bee’s breaking news reporting team, covering public safety and other local stories. A Sacramento native and lifelong capital resident, he interned at The Bee while attending Sacramento State, where he earned a degree in journalism.
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