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PG&E ready to turn electricity on for most foothill customers, but restoring power is tougher than flipping a switch

PG&E announced Monday that power will be restored by midnight to 70 percent of its Northern California customers a day after high winds pushed the utility to perform its first public safety shutoff intended to prevent wildfires.

Nearly 60,000 people are currently without power across six counties, including El Dorado, Amador and Calaveras.

The planned power outage, which will likely become more common as a preemptive fire fighting strategy, showed that turning the lights back on is more complicated than flipping a switch.

PG&E said that every foot of line in the affected areas must be visually inspected before power can be restored. Crews were busy throughout the region Monday examining heavy duty transmission lines that move electricity over long distances and the smaller distribution lines that take power into customer’s homes and businesses.

Brandi Merlo, PG&E spokesperson for the greater Sacramento Area, said crews are currently patrolling the power lines in El Dorado, Amador and Calaveras counties and “they’re hoping to complete that work by the end of the day.”

Depending on weather conditions, the shutoff may continue for some into Tuesday, Merlo said.

“We’ve de-energized more than 78 miles of transmission lines and 2,150 miles of distribution lines,” Merlo said. “To turn the power back on, first every foot of line has to be patrolled by either foot, vehicle or helicopter to make sure they haven’t been damaged by the wind event. Once they’ve been checked, and repairs have been made, the power can be turned on remotely from a control center or manually. Either way, a crew has to be present on the line to check it and make sure it’s working properly.”

PG&E looked at fire threat maps to identify which lines would be shut off prior to Sunday’s outage and Merlo said this will likely happen again in cases of extreme wildfire risk.

“We’ve certainly seen climate change create a new normal of increased threat of wildfire and this is one of the actions we’re taking,” she said.

The shutoff is causing growing frustration in the Sierra foothills, with people taking to social media to vent concerns about lost groceries, lack of access to water and lost wages.

In response to a poll posted on the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Facebook page, dozens of people have raised concerns about their well pumps not working. One resident, Annie Angelich, said “We live on a well so we have very limited drinking water and zero water to flush waste.”

Many others were upset about hundreds of dollars in lost groceries as refrigerators remained off.

Office of Emergency Services in the three affected foothill counties were notified prior to the shutoff, and as of Monday afternoon no emergency operations centers were activated, and no shelters were opened in response to the outage, county officials said.

Sgt. John Silva, director of the Amador OES, said they had an emergency center up and running in case of major impact on the county but hadn’t needed it.

“It’s not unusual for us to have power outages . . . so quite frankly it’s nothing new to us,” Silva said.

Hospitals in the area were still operating, and the most significant impact was that schools were closed for the day, he said.

In Calaveras County, the county health and human services department visited homes of vulnerable people in the days leading up to the power shutoff, said Michelle Patterson, director of OES for Calaveras County.

The new plan is meant to limit the danger posed by strong winds whipping electrical lines into trees or snapping them to the ground to potentially ignite brush. Cal Fire investigations found that Pacific Gas and Electric Co. equipment was responsible for 16 fires that erupted in wine country and the Sacramento Valley in early October 2017 and killed a total of 44 people.

Officials in June blamed PG&E’s power and distribution lines, and the failure of its power poles, for fires in Mendocino, Humboldt, Butte, Sonoma, Lake and Napa counties.

On Tuesday, Cal Fire blamed PG&E for another fire, saying the Cascade Fire that killed four in Yuba County in October was caused by “sagging power lines” owned by the utility.

In March, stung by accusations that its equipment caused those October fires, the company said it would work with community and emergency officials and cut the juice at critical times as part of a multipronged initiative to tamp down wildfire risks, including trimming trees and vegetation adjacent to transmission wires more aggressively.

With insurance claims exceeding $9.4 billion, the October fires that killed 44 people were the most expensive in California’s history. PG&E Corp., the utility’s parent, has already told investors that it expects claims from last October’s fires to easily exceed $2.5 billion.

The agency has yet to provide a report on the Tubbs Fire, which destroyed more than 5,600 structures and killed 22 people.

Molly Sullivan: 916-321-1176, @SullivanMollyM

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