Update, 7 p.m. The city now says Berkeley won’t lose power again this week. See the latest on Berkeleyside.
Original story: More than 7,000 PG&E customers in Berkeley remained without power Sunday night and relief may still be days away.
The utility company said a new planned blackout event due to high fire danger will begin Tuesday and that it may not have a chance to get power back to all its customers before the new wave of shutoffs starts. No estimate was available Sunday night as to how many Berkeleyans would be affected in the upcoming outage, but PG&E told city staff it “will follow a similar footprint to the most recent fire-related planned outages.”
Berkeley homes in the hills and down into the Elmwood and Claremont neighborhoods began having their power cut Saturday night. Sunday, the city was busy with reports of dozens of downed trees and branches, some of which took down power lines and caused property damage as winds gusted through town.
PG&E said it plans to issue the “all-clear” for the current outage Monday morning, but restoring power to everyone affected can take another two to five days beyond that due to requisite line inspections and repairs to damage caused by recent extreme weather. The next shutoff is set to begin Tuesday and last until Wednesday — with restoration potentially coming two to five days later.
“This nearly weeklong loss of electricity means that many in Berkeley will need to take extra steps to stay without power for up to a week, while also preparing through Wednesday for potential wildfire evacuations,” the city said in a statement Sunday. The city “will continue to keep increased levels of police, fire and civilian staff working 24 hour shifts to respond to any events caused by loss of electricity, heavy winds, and heavy fire danger.”
With all the tree damage in Berkeley on Sunday, city spokesman Matthai Chakko said the city prioritized damage that might affect power lines. The city kept the Tarea Hall Pittman South Branch of the Berkeley Public Library open Sunday for extended hours, while PG&E set up a community resource center with snacks and charging stations near the Clark Kerr Campus. The center at Clark Kerr will be open Monday as well, Chakko said.
“This is going to be a bit of a marathon because it’s so many days,” he told Berkeleyside on Sunday night. The fire danger is real, he added: “That’s what we really need people to be cautious about and plan ahead for and take seriously.”
The city has encouraged community members who need a space to power up to visit the libraries during working hours. After hours, a wifi signal will be available outside those buildings, too.
UC Berkeley has canceled classes Monday so it can conserve power from its generators. East Bay Regional Park District parks and trails have been closed until 9 a.m. Tuesday “due to extreme weather and fire dangers.” Berkeley Unified has said it will be open Monday, but that two schools may not have power.
— Zoё Chafe (@healthNclimate) October 27, 2019
In addition to responding to weather-related damage around town, the city has been working to be sure its residents who need electricity for medical equipment were informed about PG&E’s plans, Chakko said. PG&E gave the city a list of about 65 people whom it could not contact about this weekend’s outage and, over the past two days, Berkeley staff were able to call or visit with most of them, Chakko said. City staffers have been working to determine what the needs of those individuals are and do what they can to help them plan for outages and evacuations.
In addition to addressing local needs by sending out additional patrols of first responders, the city has also sent some police and firefighters up to Sonoma County to help with firefighting and safety-related efforts there. The Kincade Fire north of Geyserville has burned about 54,000 acres since it began three days ago, according to Cal Fire. It is just 5% contained.
As of 7 p.m. Sunday, 180,000 people were being evacuated from the region and nearly 80,000 structures were listed as threatened. Nearly 100 structures have already been destroyed. There have been no reported injuries or fatalities.
PG&E: 500,000 have been notified of another outage starting Tuesday
In a media briefing Sunday evening, PG&E’s chief meteorologist, Scott Strenfel, said the very strong “Diablo” windstorm that began overnight Sunday was the “strongest offshore windstorm we’ve seen” since the devastating fires that ripped through wine country in October 2017. By some metrics, he added, this weekend’s weather was even stronger.
Berkeleyside, along with about 50 other members of the media, phoned in to the conference call with PG&E. Other reporters were in the room for the briefing in San Francisco at PG&E Headquarters at 245 Market St.
Some parts of the Bay Area — in the North Bay — saw gusts Sunday at or above 90 mph, Strenfel told them. Sustained winds of 74 mph are considered hurricane force, he said.
— Berkeleyside (@berkeleyside) October 27, 2019
In the coming days, PG&E believes its crews will find “significant damage” to its lines as a result of these high winds and nearby vegetation. The last weather event that prompted a shutoff saw damage to more than 120 PG&E “assets,” he said, and this weekend’s weather was even more intense.
Strenfel said the offshore wind event expected to begin Tuesday appears to be weaker than what’s been happening this weekend. He did share what he called a “sliver of good news,” noting that current weather models are not showing anything of concern post-Wednesday.
PG&E’s senior director of Emergency Preparedness and Response Mark Quinlan said about 965,000 customers had been affected by the planned blackout over the weekend, while another 100,000 customers had seen service drop because of “emergent outages” related to weather and equipment issues.
As of Sunday evening, he said, PG&E had begun the power restoration process for eight of the 38 counties affected by the weekend’s planned outage. That was “very, very good news” for the utility, he said, because it had not anticipated being able to begin line inspections and other restoration work until Monday.
Quinlan said PG&E plans to issue “all-clears” for everyone else from the weekend outage between 6-8 a.m. Monday. But that doesn’t mean they’ll get their power back, he cautioned: The agency has already notified 500,000 customers that they may be part of the next planned shutoff, he said.
PG&E field teams include 6,000 people and 44 helicopters, as well as a Cal OES airplane that is able to use a high-resolution camera and infrared technology to assess PG&E equipment overnight.
PG&E says it has another 230 people set to join its field teams this week and has made a mutual aid request for 150 four-person heavy construction crews to help with repairs caused by the high winds.
In addition, he said, PG&E is working with its “contracting partners” to bring another 40 helicopters online to help the restoration effort move faster.
Part of a large tree came down on Haste near Ellsworth around noon today, hitting two cars and blocking the road, according to witnesses. Photo by Daphne White #windadvisory pic.twitter.com/Uisi5HION0
— Berkeleyside (@berkeleyside) October 27, 2019
Andy Vesey, CEO and president of PG&E, said the agency has aimed previously to get the power back on for all its customers before a new shutoff event hits.
“We try to get it back on before turning it off again,” he said, pausing. “This one’s gonna be tight.”
He said customers should aim to do whatever they can to charge their devices so they can continue to get updates from PG&E and authorities about plans as they develop.
“I urge all of you to ensure you are prepared for the fact that your power may not come back,” he said.
Vesey said he had visited some PG&E community resource centers over the weekend to hear directly from customers about what they were experiencing.
“What we do is not popular,” he said. “I will not tell you that people congratulated us. People were angry.”
— Michael (@BSidesNarrative) October 27, 2019
Vesey said he came back from those conversations with ideas about how to improve the public safety power shutoff process going forward. He said he could not share specifics about those ideas — but does want to make some changes.
He told the media, too, that some PG&E workers had been “accosted and threatened” over the weekend, and asked community members not to take out their emotions on the front-line staff.
“I know there is a lot of anger,” he said. “Please do not direct that to our men and women — our employees, our contracted people — who are there to keep you safe and restore your power as quickly as possible.”
Vesey said PG&E has 30,000 miles of conductor — “which is more than can wrap around the earth” — and that it closely monitors the highest-risk wildfire zones to keep debris from contacting its lines, particularly in high-wind zones where the fuel is plentiful.
According to PG&E’s online outage map, there were 37 outages in the city that were affecting 7,080 customers as of publication time. The city has said that translates into approximately three times as many people. The vast majority of the outages, according to the map, were part of the planned shutoff, but a number of other scattered outages had also been reported around town.