With dry, devilish winds bearing down on the North Bay amid a record-breaking heat wave, PG&E will turn off electricity to 40,000 people or more in Sonoma County early Tuesday morning in an attempt to prevent its electrical equipment from sparking another devastating wildfire.
The shut-offs will start around 3 a.m. Tuesday in Sonoma County and power may remain out for more than 24 hours, PG&E announced during a news conference Monday evening. It expects to restore power by 7 p.m. Wednesday.
“We’re doing that because we believe that the unsafe winds will be in place right around day break, at about 6 a.m., so it takes us a little bit of time to make sure we can switch the system off and make sure it is safe before the winds get here,” said Mark Quinlan, PG&E incident commander.
The announcement came as the North Bay baked in triple-digit temperatures for the third straight day, sending thousands to coastal and river beaches in search of relief. But the extreme weather brought danger in tandem with discomfort. The National Weather Service issued a red flag warning starting Monday night and continuing through Wednesday morning for the hills in the North Bay, where it forecast hot, dry, windy conditions that allow fires to spread rapidly.
The seriousness of the threat was punctuated to the north in Mendocino County, where the Oak fire exploded Monday afternoon near Willits and ripped through 700 acres in mere hours, forcing evacuations and the closure of Highway 101 in both directions.
After studying weather forecasts for much of the day Monday, PG&E announced that it is implementing proactive power outages for the first time in 2020 to reduce the risk of wildfires in 21 California counties on Tuesday and Wednesday. It conducted seven such outages last year — one in June, one in September, four in October and one in November — six of which affected the North Bay.
In Sonoma County, the power shut-offs will be centered in the Sonoma Valley and the hills north and east of Santa Rosa, PG&E said. The outages could affect 17,686 customers in Sonoma County: 15,052 with Santa Rosa addresses and 2,634 in unincorporated areas of the county.
Approximately 45,000 people in the city of Santa Rosa — or nearly 1 in 10 of the county’s residents — will be subjected to the blackout, the Santa Rosa Fire Department estimated. Chris Godley, the county’s director of emergency management, said approximately 40,000 people in the city, other Sonoma County towns and unincorporated areas could be impacted.
In Napa County, shut-offs are planned for 5,028 customers in and around Calistoga, St. Helena and incorporated ares.
PG&E crews scrambled to turn off portions of its electrical grid before the arrival of powerful winds from the north that could blow tree limbs into power lines and cause flames to spread rapidly. It will bring strong winds of 15 to 30 mph — and gusts of 45 to 65 mph in the North Bay mountains, according to the National Weather Service, which issued a wind advisory from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesday.
“We understand the impact that turning off the power has on our customers, especially because it’s hot,” PG&E spokeswoman Deanna Contreras. “We may need to turn off the power during this severe weather for public safety to prevent a wildfire.”
The strategy did not stop the largest wildfire in Sonoma County history: the 2019 Kincade fire, which burned more than 77,000 acres in north Sonoma County last October and forced nearly 190,000 people to evacuate. State investigators determined the fire was sparked by PG&E’s electric transmission lines northeast of Geyserville.
The utility, which exited bankruptcy earlier this year after settling for billions of dollars with victims of a series of wildfires ignited by its equipment, vows the power shutoffs will be different this year than the broad-brush blackouts of 2019. It aims to limit the impact of its shutoffs by having them affect fewer people and by restoring power within 12 daylight hours after the passage of severe weather, Contreras said.
PG&E hopes to restore power in Sonoma County no later than 7 p.m. Wednesday, though it will need assurance from meteorologists that powerful winds no longer pose a danger to the company’s power lines before restoration work can start, Quinlan said.
The key to quicker restoration is faster inspections of lines to check for weather damage to equipment. To this end, PG&E has increased its helicopter fleet from 35 to 65 and will use two airplanes with infrared cameras to allow it to conduct inspections at night, as well as deploying more ground crews, Contreras said.