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California utility offers forecast on power blackouts for wildfires

by Dale Kasler, Sacramento Bee |

Facing criticism over its wildfire blackout policy, Pacific Gas and Electric Corp. this week launched a “weather awareness” website to give customers warnings of up to seven days ahead of deliberate power shutoffs.

The site offers detailed weather forecasts across PG&E’s territory, with information about temperature, humidity, winds and other factors that could prompt the beleaguered utility to cut off electricity.

As it happens, the website showed that no power shutoffs are expected over the next week, despite an increased chance of wildfire activity. Much of Northern California sits under a “red flag” warning from the National Weather Service, with forecasters predicting that lightning strikes could start wildfires in the Sierra Nevada and elsewhere.

PG&E has imposed two deliberate blackouts in the past year to reduce wildfire risks, including a June shutoff that affected parts of Yolo, Solano, Napa, Yuba and Butte counties.

The Butte blackout left Paradise without power for part of day, angering residents of a community that was largely destroyed by last November’s deadly Camp Fire. The Camp Fire, like more than a dozen since 2017, has been blamed on problems with PG&E equipment.

The moves have prompted criticism that PG&E’s blackouts are hurting businesses and endangering customers and law enforcement. At a five-hour state Senate hearing in mid-August, lawmakers said PG&E has too much discretion when it comes to shutting off power.

PG&E has defended the blackouts as necessary to prevent more mega-fires and said it only cuts power as a last resort when fire risks escalate. It said the new website will help customers gear up.

“By expanding our network of weather stations and cameras and offering this real-time information to our customers and agency partners, PG&E continues to grow Northern and Central California’s awareness of weather patterns and the need to initiate a public safety power shutoff when conditions merit it,” company meteorologist Scott Strenfel said in a press release.

PG&E says power shutoffs are influenced by a variety of factors, including red flag warnings, humidity levels, wind conditions and the moisture content of brush and other vegetation on the ground.