Allison Bagley

HOW HOT?  — Meteorologist Allison Bagley hooks up one of several new weather stations that PG&E has installed in west county. The systems will provide data to help determine whether PG&E should turn off the power to high fire danger areas.

More frequent and longer power outages the ‘new norm’ in wildfire season

In the wake of increasingly volatile wildfire seasons across the state, Pacific Gas and Electric Company is taking a new approach to fire prevention. As a result, communities in west county could experience more frequent and longer power outages.

PG&E released a statement on their website saying, “PG&E’s new Community Wildfire Safety Program is our response to years of drought, extreme heat and 129 million dead trees that have created a ‘new normal’ for our state, and we must continue to adapt to meet these challenges.”

In an effort to inform communities about the new program, PG&E is reaching out to customers who live in or near high fire-threat areas, which includes a large section of west county, to let them know that, if extreme fire danger conditions occur, it may be necessary for PG&E to temporarily turn off power to their neighborhood or community for safety.

Some of the factors that can determine if power will be shut off include strong winds, very low humidity levels and critically dry vegetation that could serve as fuel for wildfire, according to a press release from the company. 

During the Sept. 4 Sebastopol City Council meeting, Brian Bottari of PG&E gave a presentation about the new changes and how they might impact people in the area. He said the lines most likely to be shut off for safety will be those in areas that have been designated by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) as at extreme risk for wildfire or “Tier 3” areas.

While Sebastopol does not fall under Tier 3, a broad section of the county directly to the west of town does. Even though a customer lives outside of Tier 3, if they share an electric line that runs through a Tier 3 area, they too will lose power during a shut-off. Restoring service can take up to 48 hours, depending on the extent of damage to the lines.

PG&E offers a simple search-by-address tool on their website to help residents find out if they are in an extreme fire danger area or near one (https://m.pge.com/?WT.pgeac=Wildfire_Community-Tab2-Impacted#high-fire-threat-map). There is also a link on the site to the CPUC’s fire threat map, showing which areas are in Tier 2 (elevated fire threat) or Tier 3  (extreme fire threat) (http://cpuc.ca.gov/FireThreatMaps/).

PG&E staff said about half a million customers who could be impacted by a power shutoff have already been notified of the new program.

PG&E Sonoma County spokesperson Deanna Contreras said that, ideally, PG&E will give all customers 48-hour notice of a power shut-off.

Bottari said customers in the company’s Medical Base program, who rely on medical equipment that requires a power source, will get extra notice in the event of a public safety power shutoff. If these customers don’t respond to the first notice via text or telephone, the company will send a representative out to the customer’s home. These individuals need to take critical measures after receiving notification to ensure their safety, Bottari said, including parking their cars outside the garage or leaving the garage door open to evacuate if necessary while the power is shut off.

PG&E is also asking customers to update their contact information, even if they don’t live in a high fire danger area. “If we don’t have your current information, we can’t tell you when the power will be shut off,” said Contreras.

Residents can sign up for alerts to go to their phone, email or text by visiting pge.com or by calling 1-866-743-6589 during normal business hours. You don’t need to be a PG&E customer to sign up for alerts.

Contreras notes that wildfire season is not the only time power outages occur. West county residents should be prepared for outages in the rainy season as well. “Trees fall on lines every year,” she said.

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