A burnt Pacific Gas & Electric Co. truck in Paradise on Feb. 17.

Over 20,000 Yuba and Butte county residents had their power shut off by Pacific Gas and Electric Co. Saturday in what is likely a new normal during critical fire weather.

In Yuba County, the communities of Loma Rica, Rackerby, and parts of Oregon House were affected, while Marysville, Browns Valley and Wheatland residents were told to expect power shutoff as well (but weren’t shut off).

By Sunday night, power was restored, but that didn’t keep people from bemoaning the risks (for those with medical needs that require electricity) and inconvenience (high temperatures with no air conditioning). It’s a move that comes amidst public scrutiny of the investor-owned utility company, which was found to be at fault for four major wildfires in 2017, including the Cascade Fire in Yuba County; and Cal Fire investigators announced earlier this year that the company had code violations in eight of 12 Northern California wildfires in October 2017. 

That’s not to mention fires blamed on PG&E equipment in 2018, including the deadly Camp Fire or the fact that PG&E has filed for bankruptcy over liabilities it accrued for fire starts.

But PG&E says the public safety power shutoffs (PSPS) have nothing to do with avoiding liability – even though the program was implemented last year and the first shutoff in October was a response to critical fire conditions. All three investor-owned utilities regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission have PSPS programs.

“PSPS is designed to avoid fire danger and keep communities safer. Period.” PG&E spokesman Paul Moreno wrote in an email Monday. 

No single factor drives a shutoff or what area is affected, Moreno said. The company’s Wildfire Safety Operations Center team monitors conditions from hundreds of weather stations, 25 high-definition weather cameras and other data to evaluate whether to proactively turn off electric power lines if extreme fire conditions are forecast. This year, the PSPS program expanded to include transmission power lines. Factors PG&E staff consider include a red flag warning declared by the National Weather Service; low-humidity levels, generally 20 percent and below; forecast sustained winds generally above 25 mph and wind gusts in excess of 45 mph; temperature, terrain and local climate; and condition of dry fuel on the ground and moisture content for live vegetation. 

And while PG&E hopes the power shutoffs will better protect citizens, they don’t alleviate the need for PG&E to take other actions, Moreno said: the company is doing more inspections, pruning and tree removals to avoid tree and limb contact with power lines, and hardening the grid by using nonwood materials, covered wire and, in some cases, burying power lines, which PG&E is doing now for the rebuild in Paradise.

What to expect

Some people are surprised about the length of time a shutoff can last. Once the lines are shutoff, they can’t automatically be turned back on. Re-energizing after the shutoff took nearly a day as PG&E had to patrol 800 miles of transmission and distribution lines involved in the shutoff to ensure there was no line damage, Moreno said. The patrol process can take longer if there are access issues and widespread shutoffs.

Moreno wouldn’t say whether or not shutoffs would become the new normal, instead saying that the company last year worked to harden its systems, including installing more cameras and weather systems and remotely-operated equipment on the grid.

“We do ask customers to be prepared to be without power during a PSPS event and to plan to be without power for an extended period of time,” Moreno wrote. “Many businesses and homes have generators to help them get by, and we offered a customer center in Oroville that could seat 100 customers in air conditioned environment with water and outlets to plu–in rechargeable devices.” (As many as 20,000 residents were estimated to have been affected.)

 Yuba County Office of Emergency Services also opened two centers for those with medical needs: one at the Alcouffe Center in Oregon House and one at the Allyn Scott Youth Center in Marysville. Yuba County Public Information Officer Russ Brown said no one showed up at either center. There wasn’t much cost to the county – it already had generators predating the PG&E power shutoff program, and there was little staff cost. The county also issued several CodeRED alerts Friday to alert residents and posted to its Facebook page. 

“We just need to make sure that PG&E goes through the steps to make sure the power is shut off,” Brown said Monday. “We need to make sure we do everything we can to make sure that the situation doesn’t get out of control and put people in danger.”

For local county governments heading into the long and critical fire season, being prepared for these shutoffs is now expected.

“It sounds like it’s a new normal moving forward,” Brown said. “We don’t have a whole lot of say in this.”

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