PG&E blackouts start in Northern California. Over 2 million people will lose power for days

PG&E Corp. started to cut power to an unprecedented 940,000 homes and businesses late Saturday as a major windstorm approached Northern California and a dangerous wildfire worsened in Sonoma County.

In a chaotic day with much of the attention riveted on the Kincade Fire in Sonoma, Pacific Gas and Electric expanded the “public safety power shutoff” by an additional 90,000 homes. The outage was expected to affect more than 2 million in parts of 36 counties, representing nearly one-fifth of PG&E’s customer base.

Chief meteorologist for the utility Scott Strenfel said on Saturday evening during a press conference that “all the conditions needed for a significant fire will be present in this event.”

The changing wind patterns kept PG&E constantly adjusting its timetable. The blackouts were expected to begin at 2 p.m. but kept getting pushed back. Sierra Littlefield, a forecaster at the National Weather Service, said the strongest winds weren’t expected to hit Northern California until about 11 p.m.

“The weather is dynamic and changing. We are adjusting start times based on the weather forecast,” PG&E spokeswoman Brandi Merlo said late Saturday afternoon.

It was set to be the largest of the precautionary outages that PG&E has undertaken as the utility struggles to maintain safety. On Oct. 9 PG&E blacked out 738,000 customers, which had been the largest shutoff to date.

The blackouts were expected to blanket parts of the Bay Area in particular. In Marin County, 118,535 customers, or 99 percent of the county, were set to lose power, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

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PG&E officials believe the latest blackout could last 48 hours or more.

“The level of winds, gusting to almost 80 mph, presents a real threat and an opportunity for a catastrophic fire,” said Andy Vesey, utility CEO and president of PG&E. “It is our absolute objective to ensure that we do not add to that risk. What we find ourselves experiencing is what’s been called a historic wind event occurring.”

The first wave hit early evening at 5 p.m. in Amador, Butte, El Dorado, Glenn, Nevada, Placer, Plumas, San Joaquin, Sierra, Shasta, Tehama and Yuba.

The second phase targeted Colusa, Marin, southern Mendocino, Napa, Solano, Sonoma and Yolo around the same time.

The third phase was scheduled to begin at 8 p.m., focused on Alameda, Contra Costa, Monterey, San Benito, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Stanislaus.

Another round was scheduled along the North Coast at 9 p.m., stretching into Humboldt, Lake, northern Mendocino, Siskiyou and Trinity.

Alpine, Calaveras, Mariposa and Tuolumne were set for around midnight, and a small group of customers in Kern County will be blacked out starting 9 p.m. Sunday.

It’s unclear when shutoffs in Madera and Fresno Counties would begin, but officials said winds will start picking up Sunday at 10 a.m., with the all clear expected for 10 p.m. the same evening.

The blackouts will begin barely a day after PG&E finished restoring power to about 178,000 customers who had lost power from an earlier wildfire-safety shutoff that began Wednesday.

PG&E announced the expanded blackout shortly after Cal Fire announced that evacuation orders had been issued for tens of thousands of Sonoma County residents in Healdsburg, Windsor and other areas stretching to the Pacific Ocean because of the Kincade Fire. Officials said those towns were not facing an imminent threat but the coming winds made it imperative for residents to leave.

Vesey said the conditions are likely to produce “the strongest winds we’ve had in a number of years,” stronger even than the winds that fueled the Wine Country fires of 2017. Customers out of the shutoff scope could also experience a loss of power as a result.

The utility’s officials said on Saturday they anticipate restoration 48 hours after they receive “the all clear.”

That doesn’t mean customers are going to be without power for 48 hours, but that restoration will begin once it’s deemed safe to turn the power back on. In the meantime, more than 60 community resource centers have been set up to offer restrooms, bottled water, charging stations, coffee and some dried foods.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has sharply criticized PG&E for the massive blackouts, saying the utility should have “hardened” its grid years ago to protect equipment from high winds. The utility has said it is doing the best it can.

“I appreciate the sentiment,” Newsom said during a press conference in Napa on Saturday afternoon. “But what I don’t appreciate is the lack of intentionality over the course of decades in investing the tools and technology to address that. What took a few decades to be created simply cannot be turned around overnight.”

PG&E officials, in a potentially damaging disclosure, told regulators earlier this week that a transmission tower malfunctioned in the area where the Kincade Fire started Wednesday night. The area had already been blacked out by PG&E but the transmission line was still running.

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Dale Kasler covers climate change, the environment, economics and the convoluted world of California water. He also covers major enterprise stories for McClatchy’s Western newspapers. He joined The Bee in 1996 from the Des Moines Register and graduated from Northwestern University.