The blackout on Nov. 20, 2019 was the latest in a series of massive outages by PG&E in California. (Photo by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The blackout on Nov. 20, 2019 was the latest in a series of massive outages by PG&E in California. (Photo by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Blackouts hit Northern California again during fire danger

SAN FRANCISCO — Pacific Gas & Electric turned off electricity Wednesday for about 120,000 people in Northern California to prevent power lines from sparking wildfires during a new bout of windy, warm weather.

However, favourable weather allowed the nation’s largest utility to drastically reduce the number of customers it originally had planned to black out — about 375,000 — and even to begin restoring electricity in some areas.

Higher-than-expected humidity, cloud cover and even some rain showers in the Sierra Nevada helped reduce the risk, said Scott Strenfel, PG&E’s principal meteorologist.

“All of these factors kind of broke in all of our favour,” he said.

Virtually all those who lost power were expected to get it back Thursday once a weather all-clear is declared and ground crews and helicopters check power lines to make sure any damage is repaired, officials said.

Forecasts had called for it to be dry and windy Wednesday, with gusts up to 55 mph (89 kph), which could fling tree branches or other debris into lines and cause sparks that have the potential to set catastrophic fires, PG&E officials said. A virtually rainless fall has left brush bone dry.

The blackout is the latest in a series of massive outages by PG&E, including one last month that plunged nearly 2.5 million people into darkness and outraged officials and customers as overkill.

Officials accused the company of using the blackouts as a crutch after years of failing to update its infrastructure to withstand fire weather. PG&E equipment has caused some of California’s most destructive wildfires in recent years.

PG&E CEO Andy Vesey acknowledged the outages have been “terribly disruptive” and said the company is taking steps to avoid them in the future but that for now, “we won’t roll the dice on public safety.”

Meanwhile, California regulators are demanding answers from wireless, internet and landline providers whose equipment failed during the earlier outages, leaving hundreds of thousands of people without a way to get emergency alerts or make 911 calls.

About 3% of cell towers statewide failed at one point in late October, but the numbers were much higher in northern counties, such as Marin, which had 57% of its towers out, and Sonoma, with 27% out.

Some public safety workers had to drive for an hour to see if they needed to check in, said John Kennedy of the Rural County Representatives of California. Fire departments lost contact with fire trucks, and some had to rely on radios because download speeds were so slow or out of service, he said.

More than 450,000 people had communications cut off, the group said.

Exasperated members of the California Public Utilities Commission reminded representatives of Sprint, AT&T, Verizon and other companies that customers pay for reliable service.

“The customers need to know where there’s coverage and where there’s not, and the local responders need to know,” Commissioner Martha Guzman Aceves said.

“Next fire season cannot, cannot look like this one,” commission President Marybel Batjer said.

Consumer advocates have urged the commission to establish backup power requirements and make the companies provide detailed information about outage locations.

State Sen. Steve Glazer and Assemblywoman Rebecca Bauer-Kahan proposed legislation Wednesday that would require cellphone companies to provide at least 72 hours of backup power at cell towers.

Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T officials said they would disclose outage information immediately but didn’t commit to 72 hours of backup power.

They also criticized PG&E, saying the changing outage forecasts made it difficult to prepare. For example, AT&T deployed 60 generators to the San Francisco Bay Area only to learn that the suburbs were no longer affected, said Jeff Luong, an AT&T vice-president.

“It’s impossible to react to that type of situation,” he said.

Lake County Supervisor Moke Simon said AT&T’s network went down right away during an outage in late October, risking sewer and alarm systems. There was no backup, he said.

“That really put us in a dire-straits situation,” he said.

Batjer told the companies she was surprised by their lack of preparation given California’s long history of wildfires.

“It’s sort of stunning that you go, ‘Well, we just learned a lot in the last three weeks,’” she said.

The companies have told the state they communicated with authorities, but the outages were unprecedented. They said they’re improving backup power but that those sources might not be possible in some places and generators aren’t always safe.

Comcast said its network “fundamentally relies on commercial power to operate.”

By The Associated Press

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A pedestrian makes their way through the snow in downtown Ottawa on Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Wild winter, drastic swings in store for Canada this year: Weather Network

Wild winter, drastic swings in store for Canada this year: Weather Network

NDP Leader John Horgan, left, speaks as local candidate Ravi Kahlon listens during a campaign stop at Kahlon's home in North Delta, B.C., on April 18, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C.’s economic recovery minister says getting through pandemic will be team approach

VICTORIA — The British Columbia cabinet minister appointed to lead the province’s… Continue reading

Maimonides Geriatric Centre is shown in Montreal, Sunday, November 29, 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
Ottawa extends rules and restrictions for travelers amid rising COVID-19 case counts

The federal government says it’s extending a slew of travel restrictions and… Continue reading

Alberta had 1,571 active COVID-19 cases on Tuesday. THE CANADIAN PRESS
Alberta’s central zone now has 1,101 active COVID-19 cases

Provincial death toll has risen by nine

Dustin Mitchell (Coats) is wanted by police in relation to a homicide this past Wednesday. (Photo contributed by Red Deer RCMP)
Red Deer RCMP looking for man in relation to homicide

An arrest warrant has been issued for a Red Deer man in… Continue reading

Idyllic winter scenes are part of the atmosphere of the holiday season, and are depicted in many seasonal movies. How much do you know about holiday movies? Put your knowledge to the test. (Pixabay.com)
QUIZ: Test your knowledge of holiday movies and television specials

The festive season is a time for relaxing and enjoying some seasonal favourites

Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre speaks during a news conference Monday, Nov. 16, 2020 in Ottawa. Poilievre says building up the Canadian economy post-pandemic can't be achieved without a massive overhaul of the tax system and regulatory regime. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Conservatives attack Trudeau’s ‘reset’ but they have ideas for their own

‘We don’t need subsidized corporate welfare schemes that rely on endless bailouts from the taxpayer’

In this undated photo issued by the University of Oxford, a volunteer is administered the coronavirus vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, in Oxford, England. Pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca said Monday Nov. 23, 2020, that late-stage trials showed its coronavirus vaccine was up to 90% effective, giving public health officials hope they may soon have access to a vaccine that is cheaper and easier to distribute than some of its rivals. (University of Oxford/John Cairns via AP)
Moderna chairman says Canada near head of line for 20 million vaccine doses

Trudeau created a firestorm when he said Canadians will have to wait a bit to get vaccinated

There were 47 new COVID-19 cases in Alberta Tuesday. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson)
Spread of COVID-19 in Brampton, Ont., linked to systemic factors, experts say

‘We’re tired. We’re numb. We’re overworked. We’re frustrated, because it’s not our rules’

The courthouse in Iqaluit is shown on Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020. Three Nunavut judges, including the chief justice, are at odds over whether prison conditions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic should be considered when sentencing offenders in the territory. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Emma Tranter
Nunavut judges disagree on how to sentence offenders during pandemic

IQALUIT — Three Nunavut judges, including the territory’s chief justice, are at… Continue reading

A corrections officer opens the door to a cell in the segregation unit at the federal Fraser Valley Institution for Women during a media tour, in Abbotsford, B.C., Thursday, Oct. 26, 2017. Independent reviews of the hundreds of inmates placed in segregation over the past year found only a handful were inappropriate, new government data indicate. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Few federal inmates moved from solitary after external reviews, new data show

‘There can be rare cases where the removal may not be immediate’

A couple embrace during a ceremony to mark the end of a makeshift memorial for victims of the Toronto van attack, at Yonge St. and Finch Ave. in Toronto on Sunday, June 3, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston
‘I’ve been spared a lot,’ van attack survivor says as she watches trial alone

Court has set up a private room for victims and families of those killed in the Toronto van attack

Banff National Park. (The Canadian Press)
Study finds train speed a top factor in wildlife deaths in Banff, Yoho national parks

EDMONTON — A study looking at 646 wildlife deaths on railway tracks… Continue reading

Cows on pasture at the University of Vermont dairy farm eat hay Thursday, July 23, 2020, in Burlington, Vt. Canadian dairy farmers are demanding compensation from the government because of losses to their industry they say have been caused by a series of international trade deals. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Lisa Rathke
Feds unveil more funding for dairy, poultry and egg farmers hurt by free trade deals

OTTAWA — Canadian egg and poultry farmers who’ve lost domestic market share… Continue reading

Most Read