Cal Fire Warns: Most California Wildfires Are Sparked By People

The return of high-risk wildfire weather expected across a broad swath of Northern California has prompted PG&E to notify about 70,000 customers in nine counties of a potential planned power shutdown early Thursday morning.

They include about 400 customers in northeast unincorporated Sonoma County, possibly including Knights Valley and unincorporated Calistoga; about 2,600 in Napa County; and 6,800 in Lake County, including areas of Cobb Mountain, Hidden Valley Lake, Kelseyville, Middletown and Clearlake Oaks, company spokeswoman Deanna Contreras said. The other affected counties are in the north-central Sierra, she said.

It would be the second time in less than a month if California’s largest utility cuts power to thousands of customers in the region under a new policy aimed at preventing accidental wildfires from being sparked by wind-blown trees and power equipment during dry, gusty weather.

Only those already notified since Tuesday night would be subject to a possible outage this time around, though PG&E did not expect to make a definitive call until early Thursday morning, likely sometime after 4 a.m., Contreras said.

PG&E began texting, emailing and calling customers Tuesday night to put them on alert and has been in frequent communication with county officials and emergency response agencies so they can be prepared.

The contemplated outage overlaps with the National Weather Service red- flag warning in effect from Wednesday at 10 p.m. through Friday at 7 a.m. for elevations above 1,000  feet in the North Bay and East Bay hills, a result of strong off-shore winds and low humidity levels in the forecast.

The strongest winds are expected in higher- elevation areas of eastern Sonoma and Napa counties, said Spencer Tangen, a National Weather Service meteorologist.

Cal Fire and Sonoma County fire agencies have increased staffing just in case, and also have a strike team and a task force in place to be ready to respond to a fire at a moment’s notice.

“We are being proactive and mobilizing our resources due to the potential power loss and increased fire threat,” Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chairman James Gore said in a prepared statement.

Although the dangerous weather conditions are expected to begin tapering off Thursday afternoon and subside Friday morning, many of those who endured the PG&E power shutdown last month know an outage could linger a day or two after gusty conditions dissipate. That’s because the utility needs to inspect more than 3,000 miles of electrical transmission and distribution lines before they can be re-energized, Contreras said.

Also, there may be damaged equipment in need of repair, such as occurred with the last shutdown, when crews who patrolled afterward found 23 instances of wind-related issues. They included a primary power conductor that had been damaged by a fallen tree limb outside of Calistoga, in Sonoma County.

That’s near the origin of the October 2017 Tubbs fire, the most destructive fire in California history, destroying about 5,300 homes in Sonoma County. The fierce blaze roared into Santa Rosa driven by extreme winds Oct. 8 and 9.

Though the cause of the Tubbs fire has not been formally determined, 17 other major wildfires last year have been attributed to PG&E’s power equipment, contributing to the utility’s adoption this year of a new protocol for preventive power shutdowns.

It was invoked for the first time Oct. 14, ultimately affecting about 60,000 customers, including around 17,500 in Lake, Napa and Sonoma counties. For some, it lasted until Oct. 17, prompting complaints about food spoilage, problems with consumer medical equipment and other challenges. There also were 146 claims for economic loss, property damage and food spoilage, according to a PG&E report.

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PG&E warns it may cut power to parts of Sonoma County due to high fire risk
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