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PG&E launches another round of power outages to prevent wildfires in California

Extreme heat, fire warnings in Southern California

California's largest utility began another preventative, widespread power shutoff Wednesday that could affect hundreds of thousands of people, as dangerous fire weather returns to California. The Santa Rosa Fire Department tweeted that shutoffs had started in the city, and that it was receiving multiple reports of outages.

Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E) said the precautionary blackouts would impact nearly 180,000 homes and businesses in portions of 17 counties, mostly in the Sierra foothills and north of the San Francisco Bay Area. The outages will last about 48 hours, the utility said.

A fast-moving wildfire in Sonoma County, dubbed the Kincade Fire and fanned by 70 mph winds, quickly spread to several thousand acres and prompted officials to order evacuations in the Geyserville area late Wednesday and early Thursday.

Meanwhile, Southern California Edison said it could cut power Thursday to more than 308,000 customers in seven counties, perhaps 750,000 people, depending on the forecast. San Diego Gas & Electric was warning of power shutoffs to about 24,000 customers.

The utilities said they're concerned that winds forecast to top 60 mph could throw branches and debris into power lines, or topple them, sparking wildfires.

PG&E cut power to more than 2 million people across the San Francisco Bay Area in rolling blackouts from October 9-12, paralyzing parts of the region in what was the largest deliberate blackout to prevent wildfires in state history. Schools and universities canceled classes and many businesses were forced to close.

PG&E CEO claims blackouts could continue for 10 years, angering regulators

PG&E's new warning just two weeks later prompted a feeling of resignation among residents and business owners, as well as renewed rushes to stock up on emergency supplies.

"I think it's not panic per se, just, 'Eh, we gotta do this again?'" said Kim Schefer, manager of Village True Value Hardware in Santa Rosa.

Businesses affected by power outages

Love Birds Coffee & Tea in the old Gold Rush town of Placerville lost about $6,000 in the last outage — a huge amount for a mom-and-pop business. The store hasn't yet recovered, according to owner Garrett Sanders.

"Working this close to the last outage is going to be a true trial by fire," he said.

This time, Sanders plans to brew up coffee and stock up on handmade pastries before the shutoff, then sell them on the sidewalk.

"It's going to be a sober morning for people waking up without their coffee," he said. "We can't do, like, all of our espressos and milk-based drinks, but we'll have coffee. It'll be better than nothing."

Sanders said he is sympathetic to the argument that the outages are designed to prevent wildfires, especially since a dozen people settled in Placerville after they were burned out of the town of Paradise by a fire that killed scores of people last year.

"Of course, none of us wants the devastation" of a wildfire, Sanders said, "but I think the measures that PG&E is taking are to the ultimate extreme."

California power outage
A Valero gas station sits vacant after power was shut down as part of a statewide blackout in Santa Rosa, California, on October, 10, 2019. Getty

PG&E in the hot seat

California Governor Gavin Newsom sent a sharply worded letter Tuesday to Bill Johnson, PG&E's CEO, blaming the unprecedented mass outage earlier this month on the company's failure to maintain and upgrade its equipment.

"I believe the unacceptable scope and duration of the previous outage — deliberately forcing 735,000 customers to endure power outages — was the direct result of decades of PG&E prioritizing profit over public safety," the Democrat wrote. Newsom was referring to the number of businesses and households affected, not the total number of people.

PG&E said the shutdowns are not about money. The only goal "is to prevent a catastrophic wildfire," Johnson said in a Tuesday briefing.

CBS Sacramento reports that PG&E is opening community resource centers. Each center has air conditioning, seating for up to 100 people, restrooms, bottled water and a place where people can recharge their electronic devices. Those locations can be found here.

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