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Red flag winds: Utility warns of possible outages

by Dale Kasler, Sacramento Bee |

With weather forecasters issuing "red flag" warnings for much of Northern California, PG&E said Monday it wasn't ready to shut off power again to reduce fire risk but is watching the forecast closely.

"Right now we are just monitoring but we know that conditions can change pretty quickly," said utility spokeswoman Brandi Merlo.

She urged customers to watch for announcements and to prepare for a possible outage. Pacific Gas and Electric made the controversial decision to engineer a deliberate power outage two weeks ago when high winds upped the fire danger in parts of Northern California.

The National Weather Service declared a red flag warning beginning late Monday night for the upper reaches of the Sacramento Valley. The alert was expected to remain in effect through late Wednesday morning.

In the Sacramento area, the warning was scheduled to take effect at 8 a.m. Tuesday. Forecaster Robert Baruffaldi said gusts will hit 35 mph in much of the region, with slightly stronger winds on the west side of the valley.

Facing billions of dollars in potential liabilities from last October's deadly wildfires, PG&E is taking a more aggressive approach toward fire safety. The utility shut off power to 59,000 customers across Northern California Oct. 14 as high winds kicked up. The blackout lasted up to two days, depending on location.

PG&E later said it found that the high winds damaged some of its power lines but Merlo said the utility can't yet definitively conclude that the blackout prevented a fire. She said PG&E is wrapping up an incident report for the state Public Utilities Commission.

The shutdown generated complaints from consumers and elected officials about the public safety hazards of a mass blackout, including the impact on elderly residents who depend on home oxygen machines and other medical devices.

At least one fire chief — in Calistoga — said he didn't think the outage was necessary.

The Santa Monica organization Consumer Watchdog said PG&E was engaging in "blackout blackmail" out of anger at the Legislature for giving the utility only limited relief from wildfire financial losses.

Merlo said PG&E is continuing to take feedback from customers and local officials about the shutdown and the protocols it has in place.

"We're going to continue to refine it," she said.