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California electric company shutting off power to 800,000 people to avoid starting a massive wildfire


Guy Kovner, Will Schmitt and Chantelle Lee
The Press Democrat, Santa Rosa, Calif.

In a historic move to avert another fiery disaster, PG&E is turning off power to as many as 800,000 customers in Northern and Central California Wednesday, prompting residents, schools, businesses and local officials to make hurried plans to cope without electricity possibly for several days.

With wind speeds expected between 40 mph and 70 mph over sunbaked land Wednesday and Thursday, the state’s largest utility opted to preemptively cut power in parts of 34 counties, including Sonoma, Marin, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties in the North Bay.

PG&E, driven into bankruptcy in January facing about $30 billion in liabilities for wildfires in 2017 and 2018, adopted temporary power shut-offs as a key part of its fire prevention plan. A majority of those catastrophic blazes two years ago as well as the Camp fire in 2018 were attributed to the company’s equipment.

About 66,000 of the utility’s Sonoma County customers will lose power, which equates to about 262,000 residents. Of that total, there will be 24,000 Santa Rosa customers affected, including an estimated 72,000 residents, a city official said Tuesday.

With many PG&E customer accounts serving more than one person, the planned outage could affect well over 1 million people. The utility plans to cut power in two stages, the first early Wednesday morning before sunrise and the second between noon and 5 p.m.

Much of eastern and northern Sonoma County, including parts of Santa Rosa, Sonoma, Petaluma, Rohnert Park, Windsor, Healdsburg, Cotati and Cloverdale, are expected to be included in the shutdown, according to PG&E maps.

The utility is expected to start restoring power Thursday around noon and it could take five days to complete that process. Densely populated parts of the county could have power restored within 48 hours.

For thousands of residents, Tuesday’s news of the impending power outage was an eerie reminder of the catastrophe that struck exactly two years ago, when the 2017 North Bay wildfires killed 40 people and destroyed nearly 6,200 homes.

Christine Ratliff, a leader of a Larkfield neighborhood’s campaign to replant the trees lost to the Tubbs conflagration, spoke with an almost matter-of-fact voice of the expected widespread power shut-off.

“You hear that this is going to happen, and you look outside and say, ‘It’s so nice; it’s not even windy.’ You think, ‘Are they just overreacting?’” Ratliff said. “I would hope they wouldn’t be doing this unless it was absolutely necessary, especially such a large area.”

The planned outage will be the largest in Northern California’s history, said Chris Godley, Sonoma County’s emergency management director.

“Today, we need to step up,” Godley said Tuesday. “Check on your neighbors. Step out of your comfort zone. Go find somebody and make sure they’re going to be OK. Government can only do so much. The real resource (is) our people.”

Ratliff’s kindergartner will be off school Wednesday, one of the thousands of local students who won’t go to class because many schools in the Santa Rosa area, Sonoma Valley, Cloverdale and Rohnert Park will be closed. Also, Santa Rosa Junior College and Sonoma State University canceled classes.

Beverly Nystrom, 85, is living in a Santa Rosa condominium while her new Larkfield home is built.


©2019 The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Calif.)

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