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PG&E: Wind storm prompting massive power shutdown could be worst since 2017 North Bay fires

SG Examiner

Two years to the day after the start of the deadly, wind-fueled 2017 North Bay fires, PG&E on Tuesday said it was preparing to shut down power to large portions of the state in anticipation of a wind event just as severe but more widespread.

The shutdown, which will affect nearly 800,000 customers across 34 counties, was set to begin as soon as midnight in some areas, and could last up to five days in some areas, depending how quickly PG&E can inspect lines and equipment and bring its system back online. 

The high winds and dry conditions have led to high fire dangers and red flag warnings across the region.

“Fuels are critically dry across the territory and most of the area is looking at very receptive conditions for large fire growth,” Evan Duffey, senior meteorologist for PG&E, said at a press briefing Tuesday night. “By all metrics, this is forecast to be the strongest offshore wind event since October 2017.”

San Francisco will not be directly affected by the shutdowns in the Bay Area, and BART, Caltrain, SamTrans and Muni are all expected to remain operational.

But Marin, Sonoma, Napa, Solano, Alameda, Contra Costa and San Mateo counties are all scheduled to see power cut off in some areas.

Drivers were also expected to be affected, as the power shutoffs may force Caltrans to close all four bores of the Caldecott Tunnel and the Tom Lantos Tunnel on state Highway 1 in San Mateo County.

However, late Tuesday, it appeared that they would get a break. Caltrans shortly after 9:40 p.m. wrote on Twitter that their crews will be working throughout the night with their partners to keep power going in the tunnels and that motorists should expect them to stay open during the power outage.

Power is essential to keep the tunnels open because the tunnels must be ventilated and electricity is required to run the tunnels’ ventilation fans.

PG&E officials on Tuesday night said they were trying to find ways to provide backup power to help keep the tunnels open.

PG&E Vice President Sumeet Singh called the power shutdowns a “last resort.”

“We very much understand the inconvenience and difficulty such a power outage would cause. We do not take or make this decision lightly,” he said. “This decision… is really focused on ensuring that we’re continuing to maintain the safety of our customers and our community.”

It is unclear how long the shutdowns will last, but PG&E said the high wind event is expected to last through midday Thursday, with winds of 40 to 55 miles per hour predicted and isolated gusts up to 60 to 70 mph. After the wind subsides, crews will need to inspect power lines and equipment before power can be restored.

Customers should get notifications via automated calls, texts and emails.

The planned outages have many residents scrambling to prepare. PG&E’s website went down Tuesday morning due to what the utility said was a “high volume of traffic” from people looking up information related to a possible public safety power shutoff that could affect an estimated 600,000 customers.

The utility wrote on Twitter to apologize for the website problems. “We are currently experiencing high volume of traffic to our website & understand your frustration w/ the delay of accessing #PSPS related web pages,” PG&E wrote. “We apologize for the convenience and thank you for your patience as our team is working as quickly as possible to restore access.”

In the Bay Area, the shutoffs — called “Public Safety Power Shutoffs” — may affect more than 250,000 PG&E customers.

BART officials have said that they do not expect any disruption to train service or stations due to “power redundancies.” For some stations in the East Bay —specifically Rockridge, Orinda, Lafayette, Castro Valley, West Dublin/Pleasanton and Dublin — the transit agency has portable generators in place to power elevators, escalators, fare gates and ticket machines. All BART stations have emergency backup lighting.

The utility’s customers may be affected even though they are living in an area that isn’t affected by dangerous fire conditions because parts of the system that serve one area may originate in an area that is affected by extreme weather, PG&E officials said.

PG&E’s web site has maps of where power outages may occur.

SF Examiner

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