PG&E issues unprecedented power shut-off watch for much of Northern California – San Francisco Chronicle

Pacific Gas & Electric Co. issued an unprecedented notification to potentially shut off power across much of Northern California — including almost all of the Bay Area — on Wednesday and Thursday to prevent power lines and equipment from sparking wildfires.

In total, the shut-off watch, which precedes a warning of a Public Safety Power Shutoff, covers 29 counties — and more could be added as weather forecasts become clearer.

Shut-off watches were issued for seven of the nine Bay Area counties — all but San Francisco and Marin — along with the North Coast, northern parts of the Central Valley and the northern and central Sierra and foothills.

Sgt. Ray Kelly, a spokesman for the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, said county officials are closely monitoring the possible shut-offs and plan to keep residents up to date through an alert system and social media. Residents should charge phones and electronic devices and have different illumination devices and back-up power sources at hand.

“This is something that we are going to have to put on our radars as Bay Area residents,” Kelly said about ongoing power shut-offs. “We are asking people to use whatever technology is available to them.”

A spokesman for the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office said the agency plans to discuss what measures it will take Monday afternoon.

An elevated risk of a power shut-off also exists Wednesday and Thursday in parts of Fresno, Kern, Kings, Merced, Monterey, San Benito, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz and Stanislaus counties.

Warm dry offshore winds from the northeast — known as Diablo winds — are predicted Wednesday and Thursday, and the National Weather Service has issued a fire weather watch for the North Bay hills and valleys, East Bay hills, the Diablo Range and the Santa Cruz Mountains. The fire watch will last from 5 a.m. Wednesday through 5 p.m. Thursday.

Winds are expected to be 20 mph to 30 mph in the mountains with gusts of at least 55 mph. Gusts up to 30 mph are expected in valleys.

PG&E bases its shut-off watches on weather forecasts that project strong winds, low humidity and dry vegetation.

Melissa Subbotin, a PG&E spokeswoman, said the utility monitors forecasts from the weather service and the National Interagency Fire Center, which have both issued advisories for increased fire danger, as well as operating its own round-the-clock weather time.

The series of watches is by far the largest to date, coming just a day before the Oct. 8 anniversary of the Wine Country fires.

Counties included in the PG&E advisories include Alameda, Alpine, Amador, Butte, Calaveras, Colusa, Contra Costa, El Dorado, Glenn, Lake, Mariposa, Mendocino, Napa, Nevada, Placer, Plumas, San Joaquin, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Shasta, Sierra, Solano, Sonoma, Stanislaus, Tehama, Tuolumne, Yolo and Yuba.

As forecasts become clearer, counties or parts of counties could be added to, or droppped from, the watch list, Subbotin said.

“This is an early notification that we’re monitoring for this potentially widespread event,” she said. “Weather changes all the time.”

PG&E plans to give customers 24 to 48 hours of warning before shutting off their power, Subbotin said. Customers are advised by automated calls, text messages or emails, she said. Customers who rely on electricity to power critical medical equipment get in-person visits.

More information on shut-off plans is available here.

PG&E instituted precautionary power shut-offs to prevent its equipment from starting wildfire in October 2018, a year after some of its power lines were blamed for starting devastating wildfire in Wine Country. San Diego Gas & Electric had long used the intentional shut-offs since its equipment ignited a fire in 2007.

The PG&E program was limited at first, focusing on the kind of low-voltage lines that are likely to get knocked over by trees or branches. Since the 2018 Camp Fire, which was started by a high-voltage steel PG&E power tower that broke in the wind, PG&E has increased the frequency of pre-emptive power shutdowns. The move has irritated some customers while drawing praise or begrudging acceptance from others.

Michael Cabanatuan and Alejandro Serrano are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: mcabanatuan@sfchronicle.com, alejandro.serrano@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @ctuan @serrano_alej

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