Pacific Gas and Electric Company announced Tuesday that power will be shut off for customers in portions of 34 counties – including Yuba County – in anticipation of extreme fire weather danger starting this morning and into Thursday, according to a news release from PG&E.
The shutoff was to go into effect just after midnight in some areas, according to the release.
The National Weather Service announced Tuesday that extreme fire weather was in the forecast.
The latest shutoff comes near the anniversary of the 2017 Cascade Fire in the Yuba County foothills that killed four people. Linda Fire Department Chief Richard Webb said conditions this year are similar to the conditions present in the lead-up to that 2017 fire.
“We’re looking at virtually the same scenario,” Webb said.
Webb said the wind that comes from the north tends to be drying, leading to lower humidity and increasing the risk of a fire starting. With little to no rainfall in the last few months, fuel conditions are still dry and susceptible to ignition. What is still unknown is whether the predicted wind events will occur as predicted like they did in 2017.
“If the winds materialize that they’re currently predicting I think we could be in a very similar situation,” Webb said.
Despite those concerns, Webb said he still has mixed feelings as to whether the preemptive PG&E shutoffs are the right course of action.
PG&E Spokesperson Mark Mesenan said the criteria used to conduct a shutoff includes a red flag warning from the NWS, humidity below 20 percent, sustained winds of 25 miles per hour, wind gusts of 45 mph as well as taking into account temperature and the condition of vegetation based on observations from PG&E’s Wildfire Operation Center.
Mensenan said it was too early to tell how long the shutoff would last but said the current wind event is expected to last until midday Thursday. Along with shutoffs, Mensenan said PG&E is working on other ways of hardening power lines and improving the way it monitors potential threats. By 2022, PG&E is aiming to add 1,300 new weather stations.
Mensenan said he understands the frustration of customers who have been affected but said that the safety of the public is the company’s top priority, over concerns over costs.
“It’s not a reason of cost, it’s a reason of safety,” Mensenan said. “We care about our customers.”
Yuba County Emergency Operations Manager Scott Bryan works with PG&E and said that while he can’t speak to the validity of past shutoffs, the current wind is extreme enough to warrant a shutoff.
“Playing Monday morning quarterback is something I’m not going to do,” Bryan said.
Bryan said PG&E is in the process of improving its system to avoid having to shutoff power for every wind event, but that the system is not where the company wants it to be. According to Bryan, within the next couple of years the systems in place will be up to a level where multiple shutoffs will not be the norm.
“I think at this point PG&E is doing the prudent thing,” Bryan said.
Yuba County Supervisor for District Five Randy Fletcher said he’s disappointed in the way PG&E has handled the situation.
“They’re turning California into a third-world country,” Fletcher said.
Fletcher said he doesn’t believe PG&E is a trusted partner to the public because it is “disconnected with reality from the public’s point of view.”
Fletcher is planning on sitting down with PG&E representatives in the next couple of weeks to pass along his concerns.
State Sen. Jim Nielsen (R-Tehama) could not be reached directly for comment but echoed some of Fletcher’s concerns in a statement.
“Our livelihood is dependent on PG&E, and these shutoffs are holding us hostage. Businesses, government offices and schools will likely have to close due to these power shutoffs. This is what we expect in a developing country, not in the United States of America.”