PG&E power outage shuts down most of western Nevada County
and Alan Riquelmy
Nevada County felt the brunt of PG&E’s public safety power shutdown Wednesday morning after electricity was turned off to 43,217 customers in the county, leaving many scrambling to find flashlights, get gas in their tanks and go about their daily lives.
The outage — affecting over a half million people in the North State — is expected to last until at least this afternoon, with restoration potentially taking several days for some customers.
PG&E initiated a public safety power shutoff following red flag and extreme wind advisory warnings from the National Weather Service. The first phase of the shutoff affected 22 counties, with the second phase expected to affect 12 counties and more than 200,000 customers.
The Robinson Enterprises fleet fueling station off Lower Grass Valley Road in Nevada City saw plenty of those customers on Wednesday. It was one of the only gas stations to continue pumping gas.
By Wednesday morning the lines for the four gas pumps stretched down the road in each direction, prompting Robinson’s workers to request law enforcement to provide traffic control.
While most waiting in line were civil, some customers could be seen cutting in line, adding to the frustration.
“I hope this doesn’t last more than a couple days,” Robinson employee Bob Noller said.
Noller is in charge of refilling the gas powered generators for customers such as Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital. He said smaller counties will feel the impact if the shutdown continues longer than a couple of days.
B&C Ace Hardware in Grass Valley’s Glenbrook Basin was one of a few area businesses to remain open with the help of a gas-powered generator.
“We have to be here for the community,” B&C manager Jim Janousek said. “No matter how much inventory we stock, it gets depleted.”
While the store’s generators for sale had all been sold, many people could be seen shopping for batteries and other light sources. Others pre-ordered gas generators, a new shipment of which should arrive by the end of the week.
Extremely dry conditions and strong winds will lead to critical, possibly extreme, fire conditions across much of Northern California, National Weather Service meteorologist Ida Mis said.
According to the weather service, wind conditions in Nevada County are expected to just reach the threshold for extreme fire weather conditions, with wind gusts hitting 25 miles per hour in the lower elevations of the county and up to 55 miles per hour in higher elevations. Relative humidity is expected to drop from around 20% to the single digits on Thursday.
“As of now, current observations we have are light,” Mis said Wednesday. “But they should be increasing late (Wednesday) afternoon into the overnight hours before peaking (this) morning.”
As of Wednesday afternoon, the minimum relative humidity level was at 20% and maximum wind gusts reached 14 miles per hour, according to mesowest.utah.edu — a website anyone can use to view current conditions at observation stations.
“In terms of how strong the winds are and how dry the conditions are, this event is similar to the North Bay area wildfires that we had in 2017,” Mis said.
The North Bay Wildfires were a collection of 250 wildfires that started burning across the North State in early October 2017. More than 21 of those fires resulted in at least 245,000 acres burned, forcing 90,000 people to evacuate and killing 44 people.
Closer to home, the Lobo and McCourtney fires swept through parts of Nevada County. The Lobo fire, which burned 821 acres, and the McCourtney fire, at 76 acres, were eventually subsumed into the Wind Complex of fires, with 398 total structures destroyed in three counties.
According to PG&E, the extreme fire weather conditions led them to cut power to avoid the potential of sparking a fire from downed lines or equipment.
“As we’ve seen in previous wind events, tree branches can fly into our lines and bring them down,” PG&E representative Brandi Merlo said. “We’ve seen some cases where our equipment is just damaged from the wind speed, so if the power is off its not going to cause a fire.”
When PG&E gets the all clear for the wind event, which is expected at noon today at the earliest, they will then inspect power lines for damage and return power to customers in a stepped restoration process.
Officials said customers should prepare for outages for 24 to 48 hours after they receive the weather all clear.
Gov. Gavin Newsom said people should be outraged by PG&E’s move.
“No one is satisfied with this, no one is happy with this,” he said Tuesday.
The utility needs to upgrade and fix its equipment so massive outages are not the norm going forward, he said.
Some Nevada County schools could lose thousands of dollars in funding because of this week’s power outage, a top school official said.
Schools typically build two “snow days” into their calendar each year, giving them a funding buffer in case they miss days. A school must have 180 days in its year. Planning a 182-day school year allows for leeway, said Scott Lay, the Nevada County superintendent of schools.
“We’re calling them ‘power outage days’ that we’re building into our calendar,” he added.
Fail to meet the full 180-day year and schools lose thousands of dollars.
Schools get between $43 and $51 dollars per day per student. For the Penn Valley Union Elementary School District, which has around 400 students, that’s almost $20,000 a day.
Lay said in the past schools would apply for a waiver from the state. If granted, a school wouldn’t have to make up the missed days or lose funding.
However, Lay is unsure obtaining those state waivers remain possible.
“And we’re not getting any guidance from the state,” he said. “It is frustrating on all our parts. Looks like we’ll be down again (today).”
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The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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Highs will near 80 early next week before dipping back to the low 70s, the National Weather Service said.