Cool, dry winds gusting at freeway speeds are expected to start whipping through the North Bay and East Bay hills late Tuesday, threatening to turn sparks into raging wildfires and prompting preemptive power shut-offs that could leave more than a quarter-million Bay Area residents without electricity for days.
Officials in Oakland and Contra Costa County said Tuesday that the shut-offs could begin as early as midnight Wednesday, four hours earlier than Pacific Gas & Electric Co.’s initial estimate of 4 a.m. The outages could affect a total of 1.8 million people, Oakland officials said.
Alameda County officials issued an advisory Tuesday morning that PG&E is expected to disconnect power to more than 35,000 residences and businesses for up to five days starting early Wednesday.
Parts of every Bay Area county except San Francisco were included in PG&E’s map of potential outages. On Tuesday afternoon Marin County was added.
PG&E officials said they are monitoring weather conditions but don’t yet know when they’ll be able to announce where power will be switched off and when.
Tamar Sarkissian, a PG&E spokeswoman said the planned outages will probably not all be announced at the same time but as PG&E’s meteorologists and experts determine they are necessary.
”It’s an evolving situation,” she said. “When a decision is made, we will let our customers and our communities know.”
PG&E said Monday that it was considering power shut-offs in portions of 29 of California’s 58 counties, including every Bay Area county but San Francisco and Marin. As many as 650,000 customers could lose their power in the Bay Area, Northern California, the Sierra and Central Valley.
Late Monday, the utility listed communities that could be affected, including parts of Oakland, Berkeley, Hayward, Richmond, El Cerrito, Pinole, Calistoga, American Canyon, San Mateo, coastal communities along Highway 1, San Jose, Gilroy, Vallejo and Petaluma.
The next warning, Sarkissian said, will come “right before” PG&E turns off the power in specific areas. PG&E issues the alerts by email, text messages and automated phone calls. Customers are urged to update their contact information online
Around the Bay Area, emergency services offices and PG&E blasted out email and text alerts, automated phone calls and news releases urging Bay Area residents to take the potential power shut-downs seriously and make preparations.
“We encourage you to find alternative energy sources for light, charging devices and other necessities,” Alameda County officials said. “Plan ahead with food and water, and make sure your grab-and-go emergency kits are ready.”
At the Oakland Zoo, the staff was busy Tuesday setting up setting up generators and heading out to buy more in preparation for an outage. The zoo will close to the public if it loses power, but concern about revenue loss takes a backseat to zoo administrator’s main priority — animal safety.
“We have some generators at the zoo, but we certainly need more,” said Nik Dehejia, the zoo’s CFO. “If it’s a day or two, we’re okay. If it goes well beyond that, we’re going to be looking for help and see what we need to do.”
The zoo has three endangered species of frogs and toads, which require temperature-controlled habitats, that zoo-keepers are working to rehabilitate in the wild. “It would be devastating if those frog and toad species are lost,” Dehejia said. “We’re going to do everything we can to make sure that they receive the temperature regulation that they need.”
While people hit stores to stock up on batteries, coolers, ice and canned foods, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf joined the call to be prepared but criticized PG&E for potentially cutting power for as many as five days.
“This is the type of interruption to our lives that should not happen,” she said. “This type of interruption is not acceptable. We are going to do it because we believe it is in the interest of the safety of the people, but we have got to do better.”
National Weather Service forecasters have issued red flag warnings for the East Bay and North Bay hills, as well as the Santa Cruz Mountains. Depending on the location, the shut-offs will begin late Tuesday or early Wednesday and continue through at least Thursday afternoon.///(phase in)
Cool, dry winds are expected to increase 20 to 30 mph with gusts between 45 mph and 55 mph in the North Bay and East Bay hills — and even higher on North Bay peaks like Mount Saint Helena.
Preparing for the winds, PG&E issued a power shut-off watch for 257,000 customers in parts of seven Bay Area counties. The shut-offs are intended to prevent the utility’s power lines and equipment from accidentally sparking devastating wildfires as they’ve done in the past two years.
All counties in the region except San Francisco and Marin were advised of the potential outages.
Late Monday, PG&E released estimates of how many customers in each county the shut-offs could affect. The estimates included: 32,613 customers in Alameda; 40,219 in Contra Costa; 32,124 in Napa; 38,123 in Santa Clara; 14,766 in San Mateo; 32,862 in Solano; and 66,289 in Sonoma.
The shut-off watch covers 29 of the state’s 58 counties and targets more than 600,000 customers total. Customers in parts of these counties could lose power early Wednesday, and the watch extends through Thursday. PG&E officials say the outages could last for days after the winds stop because lines need to be inspected before they can be re-energized.
The northeast winds, known as Diablo winds, will be dry but temperatures are not expected to be hot Wednesday. Temperatures will range from the 60s near the coast to the 70s inland, with a few locations hitting 80 degrees. Tuesday’s temperatures are expected to be in the low to mid-70s in San Francisco and Oakland as the fog returns, and the low 80s inland.
The cool, windy weather is the result of a cold front moving down from Canada and heading east through the Great Basin.
“It will be cooler than it’s been, that’s for sure,” said Anna Schneider, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Monterey.