Update: PG&E says 850,000 could lose power Saturday as winds fuel California wildfire risk

For the third time this month, the state’s largest electric utility says it has to shut off power to hundreds of thousands of Californians to prevent its equipment from causing a major wildfire.

With a fire already burning in Sonoma County and extreme winds forecast for the weekend, PG&E Corp. announced Friday it will probably cut power to 850,000 homes and businesses Saturday afternoon in the largest of its precautionary “public safety power shutoffs” to date. That would translate into 2 million people or more and represent a little less than one fifth of PG&E’s customers.

The blackout would begin barely a day after PG&E finished restoring power to thousands of customers who’d been blacked out since Wednesday.

“Given the forecast ... and the historical nature of what can be anticipated, we are preparing for what is likely to be a widespread safety shutoff across our service territory to combat the risk of a catastrophic wildfire,” PG&E vice president Sumeet Singh said Friday night. He said the outages will likely last “48 hours or longer” and the final decision will likely be made early Saturday in consultation with state officials.

The looming chaos left an irate Gov. Gavin Newsom placing blame on a familiar nemesis: PG&E. After viewing damage from the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County, the governor continued his barrage of criticism, saying years of “mismanagement” left PG&E’s grid vulnerable to high winds.

Newsom said the utility was responsible for “this moment in our history with millions and millions of people impacted .... We should not have to be here.”

Responding to the governor, Andy Vesey, president of Pacific Gas and Electric Co., said late Friday: “Right now we need to focus all of our efforts getting through this event.” He added that California’s increasingly dry climate means “these places we all love have effectively become tinderboxes.”

Singh said the latest blackout would probably begin at 3 p.m. in the northern Sierra foothills, then spread to the north bay and north coast at 5 p.m. and the Bay Area and southern Sierra foothills at 7 p.m.

The latest blackout would cover parts of 36 counties, taking in much of PG&E’s 70,000 square miles of territory. It would be larger than the 790,000 customers who were shut off for up to three days Oct. 9.

California is battling significant wildfires in Sonoma and Los Angeles counties, including the wind-blown Kincade Fire in Geyserville. The Sonoma fire began Wednesday night, had burned through 21,900 acres of idyllic vineyards and other areas by Friday morning and prompted the evacuation of 2,000 people.

Although winds have been calm since mid-day Thursday, the fire was only 5 percent contained and Cal Fire officials said they were scrambling to get the fire further under control quickly before heavy winds returned. Fire crews contain a fire by digging ditches and other fuel breaks around the perimeter.

“We’re worried about the winds resurfacing,” Cal Fire director Tom Porter told reporters at a fire station near Geyserville after touring the area with Newsom.

Newsom tours Kincade Fire zone

“We saw smaller versions of what has become all too familiar up here,” Newsom said of his visit, alluding to the deadly October 2017 fires in Sonoma and Napa wine country. “Homes completely destroyed, cars that look like they’ve been in a war zone.”

Among other things, Newsom ripped PG&E for its earlier refusal this week to compensate customers who lose power.

“We’ll see. That’s what they say,” Newsom said. “We have a lot of tools in our tool kit,” including the courts and “public opinion, morality, ethics .... All those things are on our side.” And he continued to criticize PG&E for making the planned blackouts so widespread, noting that San Diego Gas & Electric is able to cut power “with precision, a scalpel.”

However, the governor declined to comment on PG&E’s acknowledgment that a live transmission line malfunctioned in the area where the Kincade Fire started. Cal Fire said it doesn’t yet know how the fire started.

Although the Geyserville area had been blacked out for precautionary reasons, the transmission line was still running when the fire started Wednesday night.

PG&E says its transmission wires, which carry power in bulk, are expected to operate safely in most high-wind events because they’re kept further away from trees — and aren’t as risky as the lower-voltage distribution wires that bring electricity to individual homes and businesses. But PG&E will shut down transmission lines in times of extreme gusts, and in light of the Kincade Fire, Vesey said the company has begun reviewing its protocols for evaluating wind conditions.

Last November, a faulty PG&E transmission tower sparked the Camp Fire in Butte County, according to state investigators.

Newsom declared a state of emergency in Sonoma and Los Angeles counties Friday. The Tick Fire north of Los Angeles has forced 40,000 people to evacuate. The declaration makes the counties eligible for state assistance.

Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, said wind forecast models show gusts as high as 95 mph along the mountain passes and gusts as high as 60 mph in the Sacramento Valley, in parts of the Bay Area and coastal valleys, along with incredibly low humidity levels.

“This is the kind of event that makes me personally nervous,” Swain said. “The one in the lead-up to the Camp Fire made me nervous and the one in 2017, before the North Bay fires, made me nervous .... The problem is, if fires start, they’re going to get very bad, very quickly, and it won’t take much because the winds are going to be so strong.”

Scott Stenfel, PG&E’s chief meteorologist, said the wind speeds are expected to be “pretty much at the top of our historical records (which) go back 30 years.” He added that the winds will be extraordinarily dry, what “you would get more in the desert regions around the world.”

The new shutoff will come just as Pacific Gas and Electric Co. wraps up its last deliberate blackout. That power outage began Wednesday and cut off 178,000 households and businesses.

El Dorado, Placer, Yolo face blackout

The next blackout would affect parts of the following counties:

Alameda, Alpine, Amador, Butte, Calaveras, Colusa, Contra Costa, El Dorado, Glenn, Humboldt, Kern, Lake, Mariposa, Mendocino, Monterey, Napa, Nevada, Placer, Plumas, San Benito, San Joaquin, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Shasta, Sierra, Siskiyou, Solano, Sonoma, Stanislaus, Tehama, Trinity, Toulumne, Yolo and Yuba.

The blackout is expected to reach deep into the Bay Area: Parts of Oakland and Richmond could get cut off. About 92,000 customers could lose power in Sonoma County, more than any other county.

Also due to be affected: El Dorado Hills, Auburn, Placerville and Chico. Paradise, which was largely destroyed last November by the Camp Fire, the deadliest in California history, also is due to be blacked out.

SMUD, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, said it doesn’t plan any blackouts. “SMUD doesn’t have any public safety power shut offs planned at this time. Wildfire risk in our service territory is low, but we’re prepared in the event of an emergency,” the utility said on its website.

Meanwhile in Southern California, strong Santa Ana winds have led the 4,300-acre Tick Fire burning in Los Angeles County to threaten about 10,000 structures as of Thursday evening.

Southern California Edison shut off power to 14,000 customers and said another 132,000 could be blacked out as Santa Ana winds tear through the south state. San Diego Gas & Electric cut off 16,000 customers.

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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.