Pacific Gas and Electric Company Shuts Off Power to Avoid Wildfires

A fallen transformer and downed power lines in Santa Rosa, Calif., last year. Pacific Gas and Electric Company began pre-emptively turning off the power to some customers on Sunday to avoid causing wildfires.
Nhat V. Meyer/San Jose Mercury News, via Associated Press

Several of the wildfires that left stunning damage while ripping across California wine country last fall were caused by power lines, poles and other equipment owned by Pacific Gas and Electric Company.

So as weather conditions ripened for another blaze on Sunday, the utility — which has already been blamed for billions in fire damage — took an unprecedented step. Pacific Gas and Electric said it would pre-emptively turn off the power altogether in some parts of the state.

“We know how much our customers rely on electric service, and we have made the decision to turn off power as a last resort given the extreme fire danger conditions these communities are experiencing,” Pat Hogan, a senior vice president for the utility, said in a statement.

The shut-off was initially scheduled to begin around 5 p.m. local time for about 70,000 customers who live in the Sierra Foothills, an inland slice of Northern California east of Sacramento. The utility called the nine counties affected by the outage “extreme fire-risk areas.”

By about 8 p.m. Pacific Gas and Electric said it had turned off power in Lake, Napa and Sonoma Counties, parts of the North Bay that are home to some of the world’s best vineyards and top restaurants. The move affected more than 17,000 customers, the utility said.

In its statement, the utility said it began telling customers about the potential outages late Saturday.

But in brief telephone interviews on Sunday night, people working in the emergency room at two hospitals in the affected areas said they were unaware of an impending loss of power. A man who answered the phone at a men’s homeless shelter in Oroville, Calif., said that he, too, did not know about it and that the power was still on.

Matt Nauman, a spokesman for Pacific Gas and Electric, said customers were warned this year that the utility might pre-emptively turn off power in a situation like Sunday’s. “People have had multiple contacts,” he said, emphasizing that the utility had reached out to all customers that could be affected.

Taste, an upscale restaurant and wine bar in Plymouth, Calif., was preparing to serve customers on Sunday evening — with or without electricity.

“We’re going to put some extra candles out there and anyone who wants to hang out with us, we’re going to hang out here with them,” said Marc Jensen, the general manager and sommelier. But he added, “It definitely handicaps us.”

Click here to read more.

SOURCE: New York Times, Matt Stevens and Sarah Mervosh