Grass Valley's Dionicio Torres looks at the gas can selection before taking the last 5-gallon gas can on the shelves at B&C Ace Home & Garden Center, in Grass Valley, Calif., Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019, in preparation of Wednesday's planned public safety power shutdown. (Elias Funez/The Union via AP)

Lights out in California again with high wildfire danger

November 20, 2019 - 5:31 pm

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Pacific Gas & Electric Co. turned off electricity Wednesday for about 120,000 people in Northern California to prevent power lines from sparking wildfires as the region faced a new bout of windy and warm weather.

The utility originally said that about 150,000 customers, or about 375,000 people, would be affected by the outages but significantly lowered that number after some areas got rain or increased humidity that lowered the fire threat.

PG&E spokeswoman Ari Vanrenen said about 35,000 more people were told they could lose power later Wednesday if weather conditions do not improve in their communities. People who lost power were expected to get it back Thursday.

A virtually rainless fall has left brush bone-dry and forecasts called for low humidity and winds gusting at times to 55 mph (89 kph), which could fling tree branches or other debris into power lines, causing sparks that could set catastrophic fires in the region, PG&E officials said.

The blackout is the latest in a series of massive outages by the country’s largest utility, including one last month that affected nearly 2.5 million people and outraged local officials and customers who accused the utility of overkill. Officials have accused the company of using the blackouts as a crutch after years of failing to harden its infrastructure to withstand fire weather.

PG&E CEO Andy Vesey acknowledged the outages have been “terribly disruptive” and said the company is taking steps to avoid them in the future, but for now, “we won’t roll the dice on public safety.”

Meanwhile, California’s utility regulators are demanding answers from wireless, internet and landline providers whose equipment failed during previous outages, leaving hundreds of thousands of people without a way to get emergency alerts or make 911 calls.

Statewide, about 3% of cell towers failed at one point in late October, but the numbers were much higher in northern counties, such as Marin, which had 57% of its towers out and Sonoma, which had 27% out.

In some cases, public safety workers had to drive for an hour to see if they needed to check in, said John Kennedy of the Rural County Representatives of California. Fire departments lost contact with fire trucks and some had to rely on radios because download speeds were so slow or out of service, he said.

More than 450,000 people were left without communications, according to the group.

Exasperated members of the California Public Utilities Commission reminded representatives of Sprint, AT&T, Verizon and other companies ordered to the meeting on Wednesday that customers pay for reliable service.

“The customers need to know where there’s coverage and where there’s not, and the local responders need to know,” said Commissioner Martha Guzman Aceves.

“Next fire season cannot, cannot look like this one,” said commission President Marybel Batjer.

Consumer advocates have urged the commission to establish backup power requirements and make the companies provide detailed information about outage locations.

On Wednesday, California Sen. Steve Glazer and Assemblywoman Rebecca Bauer-Kahan proposed legislation that would require mobile phone companies to provide at least 72 hours of backup power at cell towers.

Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T officials said they would disclose outage information immediately, but did not commit to the 72 hours backup regulation.

They also criticized PG&E, saying the utility’s changing outage forecasts made it difficult to prepare adequately. For example, AT&T deployed 60 generators to the San Francisco Bay Area only to learn that the suburbs were no longer affected by the current power outage, said Jeff Luong, a vice president with AT&T.

“It’s impossible to react to that type of information,” he said.

Lake County Supervisor Moke Simon said AT&T’s network went down right away during an outage in late October, risking the county’s sewer and alarm systems. There was no backup in place, he said.

“That really put us in a dire straits situation,” he said.

Batjer told communications company representatives she was surprised by their lack of preparation given California’s long history of wildfires.

“It’s sort of stunning that you go, ‘Well, we just learned a lot in the last three weeks,’” she said.

The California Governor's Office of Emergency Services has called the companies’ level of engagement unacceptable at a time when redundant infrastructure is necessary.

In written responses in advance of Wednesday’s meetings, the companies said they communicated with authorities but the outages were unprecedented in scope. The companies said they are improving backup power sources but added that doing so might not be possible in some locations and that generators are not always safe.

Comcast said that its network “like any modern network, fundamentally relies on commercial power to operate.”

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Associated Press writer Olga R. Rodriguez contributed to this story.

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