PG&E begins notifying customers of looming power outage in 15 counties

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SAN FRANCISCO, California – Pacific Gas & Electric Co. officials started notifying 209,000 customer accounts across 15 counties Monday afternoon that their power may be preemptively shut-off in the middle of the week, as they monitored dangerous weather conditions two weeks after an unprecedented series of intentional blackouts left 2 million people across the state without power.

San Mateo County was added to the list of those facing possible shut-offs in the Bay Area, joining Napa and Sonoma counties, while Marin and Solano were removed from the list Monday.

The National Weather Service issued a fire weather watch for the North Bay mountains, East Bay hills and Santa Cruz Mountains above 1,000 feet. The watch begins at noon Wednesday in the North Bay, and 8 p.m. in the East Bay hills and Santa Cruz Mountains. All watches will last until 4 p.m. on Thursday.

“We see some hot and windy weather coming into our service area, but we have not made the call yet” to turn off the power, said Megan McFarland, a PG&E spokeswoman. “Forecasters are looking at weather models every hour to see what’s happening. We will make the call when we’re ready.”

PG&E activated its emergency operations center Sunday in San Francisco and is considering shutting off power in portions of the following counties: Napa, Sonoma and San Mateo in the Bay Area, as well as Amador, Butte, Calaveras, El Dorado, Lake, Mendocino, Nevada, Placer, Plumas, Sierra, Sutter and Yuba.

Utility officials said the potential shut-offs are planned to start at different times for different locations, with the earliest occurring on Wednesday evening.

According to company officials, 9,623 customers and 206 medical baseline customers could be affected in Napa County, 6,462 customers and 104 medical baseline customers in San Mateo County and 33,613 customers and 1,082 medical baseline customers in Sonoma County.SUBSCRIBER BENEFITDid you know subscribers get 25% off at The Chronicle store?

The medical baseline customers represent known accounts with people who are dependent on medical equipment that needs power.

Santa Rosa, Sonoma, Half Moon Bay, Redwood City, and Napa were among the communities that could be potentially affected.

The shut-offs would be far less extensive than the cuts that affected more than 738,000 customers in 30 California counties starting Oct. 9 and lasting until Oct. 12 in some areas.

Customers who visit the company’s website this week will be redirected to a special site that can accommodate high volumes of traffic, utility officials said, after traffic during the shut-off two weeks ago paralyzed the company’s website.

PG&E officials also said they were working to “strengthen coordination with government agencies, in particular, the counties, cities, and tribal governments in its service area.”

But that was little consolation to business owners and residents in Napa, Sonoma and San Mateo counties, who were readying themselves while holding out hope they won’t lose power this time.

At the Hotel Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, which lost power during the shut-off earlier this month, workers on Monday checked food and linen inventories, stocked emergency kits and purchased additional lighting in preparation for a potential outage.

“I guess it’s the new normal, at least for this season,” said Michelle Heston, a hotel spokeswoman. “We just want to make sure we provide a safe destination for our guests.”

Sonoma Market on Napa Street, where customers emptied the shelves of ice, bottled water, and batteries, had staff move food into refrigeration trucks to be better prepared during the last shut-off, said manager Tim Berriman. The company bought a generator and plans to stock up on essentials if the market is in the blackout zone this time.

“We’ll roll with the punches if they come, and do our best to run the shop like normal,” Berriman said.

McFarland said the decision to add San Mateo County and remove Marin and Solano counties from the possible shut-down list was based primarily on weather forecasts. PG&E officials make the shut-offs based on projected wind speeds, relative humidity, dryness and the amount of vegetation, observations from crews in particular areas and weather service warnings of fire danger.

National Weather Service officials said this week’s forecast is sunny and warm, but dry, gusty winds will raise the fire danger. No fire-weather warnings have been issued so far. However, meteorologist Spencer Tangen said the dry, windy weather makes it likely.

Right now, we are not expecting the winds to be quite as strong as last time, but we are still expecting higher fire risks,” he said. “With these winds, if a fire does start, it could spread quickly.”

Offshore winds were expected to pick up Monday night, particularly in the highest North Bay and East Bay hills. Atop Mount St. Helena and Mount Diablo, sustained winds of 15 to 20 mph are forecast with gusts up to 35 mph.

Winds are likely to remain calm during the days but pick up after sundown to sustained speeds of 25 to 35 mph and gusts up to 45 mph.

Temperatures this week are expected to climb by a couple of degrees each day through Thursday, which is forecast to be the hottest day of the week with the high in downtown San Francisco reaching 84 degrees, while Oakland and Redwood City could hit 88 degrees. Inland cities could creep into the 90s.

The dangerous conditions and potential power shutdowns have many business owners on edge throughout the North Bay.

“What the heck, man?” said Peter Khoury, owner of Economy Market in Napa, “It gives me anxiety.”

Khoury said he doesn’t have a generator because they are too expensive. Considering his market has several refrigerators, fresh produce, and a butcher shop, he estimated he would need a big power source to keep the business running for four to five days if he were to lose power.

“I think the city and state should help with generators,” Khoury said. “We have enough things to deal with.”

At Fatted Calf in Napa, general manager Angelina Alongi said the store delayed meat deliveries during the last batch of shut-offs and had to close one day because they expected to be in a shut-off zone. The store never had its power shut off, Alongi said.

“We lost a whole day of sales,” she said.

Alongi, like many merchants and residents in potential shut-off zones, has been closely monitoring this week’s weather, and she said she would like better communication from PG&E.

“It’s tough to figure out what to do when you don’t know what’s going to happen,” Alongi said. “We worry about the safety of the food.”

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