Update on fire-related power shutoffs in California

UPDATED at 12:22 p.m. PDT October 10, 2019

Recently updated information about Pacific Gas and Electric’s preemptive power shutoff for much of Northern California includes additional locations in the San Francisco Bay Area and the north coast near Eureka (see map above). This brings the total number of PG&E addresses affected to 800,000, which could translate to approximately two to four million residents.

PG&E power shutoffs California
PG&E power shutoffs in Northern California, October 10, 2019.

Below is a zoomed-in map showing the greater San Francisco Bay Area.

PG&E power shutoffs California
PG&E power shutoffs in the Bay Area of California, October 10, 2019.

According to PG&E they have been turning off the power during periods of high wildfire danger since 2013, never before at this magnitude.


San Diego Gas and Electric was one of the pioneers in turning off the power to their customers when the wind blows and has been doing it  for years.

“Moderate Santa Ana winds are expected to sweep through our region starting Thursday and peak on Friday morning, bringing elevated wildfire danger to the backcountry and the potential for Public Safety Power Shutoffs,” SDG&E said in a press release.

About  34,000 SDG&E customers have been notified their electricity may be turned off (see map below).

SDG&E turn off power wind
SDG&E says the areas in yellow could experience public safety power outages during the wind event that will hit San Diego County Thursday and Friday. (SDG&E map updated October 9, 2019.)

And in the Los Angeles area:

The fire danger in Northern California is expected to decrease on Friday but remain elevated in the south part  of the state.

Predicted fire weather for October 10, 2019
Predicted fire weather for Thursday October 10, 2019.
Predicted fire weather for October 11, 2019
Predicted fire weather for October 11, 2019.

What happens when a power company decides to turn off the electricity for millions of residents?

The preemptive power shutoff for 800,000 addresses by Pacific Gas and Electric in Northern California is directly affecting approximately two to four million residents. The power company took this action to prevent their feeble power line system from starting fires during this period of strong winds. Farther south in California, San Diego Gas and Electric has warned residents living at 30,000 addresses that their power could also be turned off this week.

The indirect effects of having no electricity expand to a much larger  population when you consider traffic lights not working, tunnels on highways being shut down, plus the closure of gas stations, schools, and businesses. At some point cellular telephone towers and infrastructure may exhaust their emergency power supply systems, not to mention the batteries in the public’s cell phones.

Firefighters’ communications could be hampered by the disabling of their radio repeaters on mountain tops. Notifying residents of approaching fires and conducting evacuations in order to save lives could be challenging.

All that is the assessment of someone hundreds of miles away. For the thoughts of a person much closer to what is actually happening on the ground, we turn to Rob Carlmark, a meteorologist for ABC10 in Sacramento, who is surrounded by areas affected by PG&E’s power shutoff. Here, with his permission, are samples of what he has been writing on his Twitter account, @rcarlmark:


10:25 a.m. October 9, 2019

So here is what’s happening on the ground in California for the fire weather story. It’s genuinely freaking everybody out. If we get ZERO fires out of this (small miracle) the power shut off will be remembered for a long time. #MorningBlend10

Rob Carlmark
Rob Carlmark photo.

Despite the pretty large media effort by PG&E to warn people of the power outages…many people we are talking to at closed gas stations had no idea. Turns out not everyone…especially in rural areas look at the internet all day. Some of these folks were BLINDSIDED. We have to take them at their word because they are far away from the windiest areas affecting lines or COULD affect lines. Many work far away, and fuel up often. If you are at a gas station…let’s face it you NEED gas and maybe can’t drive 15-20 miles away to get it…or wait in long lines to get gas. They also have an unexpected day off work…maybe cancelled school..kid/kids to pick up and figure out what to do for DAYS with no power. Of course the alternative is having power on…and a well known source for fires active.

This is a tough spot to be in for 100,000s of customers which likely includes million+total in actual population if you extrapolate for households etc.

They are not going to reimburse people for spoiled food since it was planned. If an outage was caused by an extreme event and weather they might…case by case basis.

Also remember a lot of these people just got hit with a non-renewal for home insurance and if they found someone…it costs drastically more. Also remember that many of these people are actively trying to move…sell their home…can’t find insurance for new buyer or are dropping their prices all the time. This is the APEX of stress in some of the most beautiful places you ever could live.

We need to add more places… the Bay area is about to find out today if one of the major tunnels…MAJOR…will have to shut down for power outages at noon. Traffic there is a true daily horror show…and if you find this out…at work you are going to freak.

We haven’t even talked about Southern California…they too will experience massive outage issues potentially…STRONGER winds and LOWER humidity.

WE HAVEN’T EVEN HAD A FIRE YET! If that happens…which the odds are fairly high…it immediately turns into a dangerous life-threatening event with little info, or ways to get info (no power…no gas).

Finally…peak wind will be middle of the night [Wednesday night/early Thursday]. It’s not just about power…there are DOZENS of ways fires start and any fluke accident could set up many communities for a dangerous moment.

If we can get through this…the power might not come back on for a few DAYS in some areas after the fact (no strong winds) while they inspect lines. fire or not this story will continue for many days more.


4:19 a.m. PDT October 10:

Update from what’s going on in California with this fire weather/power outage emergency. We are right in the thick of it and it’s not over yet.

We had a VERY close call in a town called Moraga near the Bay Area overnight. Fire broke out near a nice suburb surrounded by open land…a true urban/wildland interface situation. It was dicey, scary and in the middle of the night…gusts were 35mph+ nearby and evacuations were door to door with no cell service and power shut off.  By the hard work of firefighters and perhaps the advantage of having roads and access the fire is mostly contained and a nightmare scenario has been avoided…for now.

From what we can tell this is an area with a planned power outage and it’s a reminder that a fire can start form dozens of different ways…not just power arcs. We don’t know cause, but since the power was shut off there it’s worth exploring other causes

Supplies are running really low in power outage areas…water, flashlights, generators etc. have been in short supply like a true disaster emergency situation.

Easily the biggest complaint is “It’s not windy at my house…the power should be back on” Gusts near the dams/hydropower/transmission lines though are VERY strong up to 52 mph so upstream impacts are creating downstream confusion

Observed wind speeds in California
Observed wind speeds in California early Thursday morning. Rob Carlmark.

In short…it’s ongoing…people are on edge…every stoplight is a four way stop with traffic issues…people have NO idea when power is coming back…it’s a big deal that is getting bigger today.

I do see the weather changing tonight for many…less wind but still dry so there is an end to this in the weather world…but the power thing…it’s going to be some time.

PG&E plans to turn off power to 600,000 addresses to prevent wildfires

This is a response to a forecast for strong winds and Red Flag Warning conditions

PG&E power turn off
Areas in which PG&E expects they will turn off the power Wednesday morning, October 9, 2019.

Pacific Gas and Electric is notifying customers at 600,000 addresses that their electricity will be turned off as a proactive response to a forecast for enhanced wildfire danger. The plan is to throw the switches at 4 a.m. October 9 which could affect millions of people in nearly 30 northern, central, coastal, and Bay Area counties. Based on the latest weather forecasts and models, PG&E anticipates the period of peak winds will occur from early Wednesday morning through midday Thursday. (UPDATE: Tuesday afternoon PG&E raised the number of addresses that will have their power shut off to 800,000)

Since the company’s power lines have caused numerous wildfires in recent years, especially during windy conditions, they have decided to turn off the  power during periods of high fire danger rather than harden their infrastructure to  make it resistant to strong winds.

The weather forecast for some of the areas identified as part of this “Public Safety Power Shutoff” predicts humidity in the teens and north to northeast winds of 15 to 25 mph gusting at 40 to 50 mph beginning late Tuesday night and lasting into Thursday.

PG&E is asking customers to:

  • Update their contact information at pge.com/mywildfirealerts or by calling 1-866-743-6589 during normal business hours. PG&E will use this information to alert customers through automated calls, texts, and emails, when possible, prior to, and during, a Public Safety Power Shutoff.
  • Plan for medical needs like medications that require refrigeration or devices that need power.
  • Identify backup charging methods for phones and keep hard copies of emergency numbers.
  • Build or restock your emergency kit with flashlights, fresh batteries, first aid supplies and cash.
  • Keep in mind family members who are elderly, younger children and pets. Information and tips including a safety plan checklist are available at pge.com/wildfiresafety.

Generators causing fires during planned power shutoffs

Some power companies in California are turning off the electricity during periods of high wildfire danger to prevent fires

Generator Fire power outage PG&E
One of the generators that caught fire during PG&E’s planned power outage. Screenshot from video below.

In what Pacific Gas and Electric calls a “Public Safety Power Shutoff”, the company turned off the power to 48,000 customers Tuesday and Wednesday in the Sierra foothills of California.

Following many fires created by their electrical equipment, PG&E began the program to prevent additional fires.  Some residents are using generators when they lose their power to pump water and to keep medical equipment and refrigerators running, but on Tuesday and Wednesday three fires in Nevada County were caused by generators.

PG&E and other companies, including San Diego Gas & Electric, have opted to turn off power to their customers during periods of high fire danger rather than harden their infrastructure to prevent failures that start fires.

Judge to PG&E: Safety is not your number 1 thing

trim trees power line
Mohave Electric Coop photo.

On Wednesday, the day after Pacific Gas and Electric officially filed for bankruptcy protection, a federal judge berated the company for wildfires started by their electrical distribution equipment.

“To my mind, there’s a very clear-cut pattern here: that PG&E is starting these fires,” Judge William Alsup said. “What do we do? Does the judge just turn a blind eye and say, continue your business as usual. Kill more people by starting more fires.'” And later, “Safety is not your number one thing”.

PG&E has been on criminal probation for years following the 2010 gas line explosion in the San Francisco Bay Area that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes. Judge Alsup is overseeing the company’s probation.

Investigators have attributed more than 1,500 fires to PG&E power lines and hardware between June 2014 and December 2017, according to the Wall Street Journal (subscription).

Below is an excerpt from KCRA:

[Alsup] proposed earlier this month as part of PG&E’s probation that it remove or trim all trees that could fall onto its power lines in high-wind conditions and shut off power when fire is a risk regardless of the inconvenience to customers or loss of profit. Alsup said his goal was to prevent PG&E equipment from causing any wildfires during the 2019 fire season.

PG&E wrote in a court filing last week that the judge’s proposals would endanger lives, could cost $75 to $150 billion to implement, and require the hiring of 650,000 workers.

From the Merced Sun Star:

Alsup, however, was clearly frustrated by PG&E’s explanations. “I don’t buy that there isn’t enough people,” the judge said, adding that PG&E is moving too slowly and wasted billions paying dividends to shareholders instead of removing trees and improving its system.

What does California law require?

The California Public Resources Code section 4293e requires all vegetation to be removed that is within four to 10 feet of a power line, depending on the how many volts it is carrying. The Code also requires the removal of “dead trees, old decadent or rotten trees, trees weakened by decay or disease, and trees or portions thereof that are leaning toward the line which may contact the line from the side or may fall on the line.”

PG&E acknowledged this law and others in the November 2, 2017 edition of their “Currents” publication. The  original copy on the internet has been removed and we were unable to find it — except on the Wayback Machine Internet Archive that was captured on November 20, 2017.

November 2, 2017 edition of PG&E's "Currents"
November 2, 2017 edition of PG&E’s “Currents”. Screen capture from Wayback Machine on November 20, 2017.

Our Opinion

It seems odd, to say the least, that PG&E now seems surprised and outraged that a judge is suggesting that the company “remove or trim all trees that could fall onto its power lines in high-wind conditions”, which is exactly what the law requires, and which was acknowledged by the company in their newsletter three weeks after their electrical system started a dozen fires in Northern California on October 8, 2017, according to CAL FIRE investigators. The agency is also looking into PG&E power line equipment failures that may have caused the Camp Fire on November 8, 2018. Over 40 people died in the Northern California fires, and 86 perished in the Camp Fire which also destroyed more than 14,000 homes.

Erin Brockovich concerned about PG&E’s bankruptcy plan after wildfires

The company could be facing more than $30 billion in potential damages after wildfires in 2017 and 2018

Camp Fire satellite photo 10:45 am Nov. 8, 2018. Zeke Lunder
Camp Fire, as it began to burn into Paradise, Calif. LANDSAT 8 image at 10:45 a.m. PT, Nov. 8, 2018. Processed by Zeke Lunder, Deer Creek Resources, Chico, Calif.

Erin Brockovich battled Pacific Gas and Electric over ground water contamination in the 1990s, an effort that led to the Julia Roberts film named after her — Erin Brockovich. Now she is concerned about PG&E’s announced plan to declare bankruptcy, which may limit the company’s liability in their role for possibly starting the Camp Fire last year and many others in 2017.

PG&E has said they can’t afford to pay the estimated $30 billion in potential damages from the fires. The Camp fire destroyed about 14,000 homes and killed at least 86 people. CAL FIRE is looking closely at hardware that may have failed on a 100-year old high-voltage tower, possibly igniting the fire. A second possible point of ignition near other PG&E equipment is also being examined.

CAL FIRE investigators determined that the company’s electrical distribution system caused at least 17 of the major fires in Northern California in 2017, destroying thousands of homes.

Ms. Brockovich appeared at a press conference in Sacramento Tuesday. Below is an excerpt from KWBE:

“We should all be beyond frustrated,” Brockovich said during the press conference. “Every one of us should be good and mad. And it is time for the state to get to work. They need to show us their true leadership in holding this company accountable and making these communities whole again.”

She also alleged that the utility company is solvent and that it’s simply shucking its responsibilities.

“How are we going to stand by and just hurl 40,000 citizens, who have been harmed — not to mention the state of California — into chaos? Because Pacific Gas and Electric once again doesn’t want to be held accountable or pay for the damages they have caused,” Brockovich said.

In a response, a spokesperson for the utility company told ABC News that the company still had “work to do” and said that it remained “focused on supporting [families impacted by the wildfires] through the recovery and rebuilding process.”