About 32,000 Pacific Gas and Electric Company customers in Napa County woke to find they were without power Wednesday morning. Lights didn’t turn on, coffee pots didn’t drip, stores didn’t open.
This marked the largest PG&E power shutoff in county history. The City of Napa had previously been spared during such shutoffs, but thousands of customers within the city limits were affected.
By the county’s math, up to three-quarters of the county could have been affected. Power will not be restored until the end of the dangerous weather period and when PG&E inspects power lines — possibly starting Thursday afternoon, according to Napa County.
At 6:15 a.m., PG&E’s online outage map showed people throughout the county were hit by power shutoffs meant to preempt the risk of a wildfire during a period of fire-prone weather conditions expected to last until Thursday afternoon. Napa was dotted with dark neighborhoods. Both Calistoga and St. Helena were hit hard, but police said American Canyon was spared.
Other places spared include portions of: downtown Napa, northern Westwood, south Napa, eastern Browns Valley, Linda Vista, Bel Aire, lower Alta Heights, areas closest to the Silverado Trail in east Napa, and the area south of Napa College along Highway 221.
No further outages were expected in Napa County, according to PG&E.
Napa was the most-impacted Napa County town with 20,000 customers losing power, said PG&E spokesperson Deanna Contreras. Another 5,700 customers in St. Helena, 2,200 customers in Calistoga and 1,100 customers in Angwin lost power, too.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the utility did not have a clear idea of how long it would take to restore power, Contreras said. Not everyone would have their power turned back on at the same time, she said.
Asked about public criticism that PG&E turned off power needlessly and too soon, Contreras said it takes the utility a couple of hours to fully turn off power. The first wave of shutoffs at midnight was enacted “in time for the severe weather to move through,” she said.
Customers who aren’t experiencing severe weather and wind “could still be impacted because of the way the grid works together,” Contreras said.
Contreras said PG&E understands the impacts of power shutoffs, and takes feedback and concerns seriously.
The valley reels from lost power
Many traffic lights on Highway 29 were out between north Napa and Yountville, as well as in St. Helena and Calistoga. Upvalley traffic was reported to be light on Highway 29 Wednesday morning.
Traffic was slow at the intersections of Highways 121 and 29, and Highways 221 and 29 after traffic lights lost power, California Highway Patrol Officer Marc Renspurger said. Generators were deployed to power the intersections, though lights were still not working at Highways 29 and 12, Highway 121 and Old Sonoma Road, and Highway 12 at Kirkland Ranch Road, as of 9:30 a.m.
PG&E said in a press release sent an hour after the first wave of shutoffs at midnight that 513,000 customers across 22 Northern and Central California counties had lost power. In total, the utility said it expected to turn off power to 800,000 customers, including 32,000 in Napa County.
Tuesday was the two-year anniversary of the Atlas, Tubbs and Partrick fires, which broke out the night of Oct. 8, 2017. A Cal Fire investigation later concluded the Atlas and Partrick fires were caused by trees falling into PG&E lines.
“As uncomfortable as we are right now, I believe it’s to prevent what we all remember two years ago,” Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza said at a Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday.
The second shutoff was to occur at noon Wednesday, but Napa County customers will not be affected. A third phase of shutoffs was expected in Central California.
Areas in the North and East Bay hills — including Napa County — are currently under a wind advisory and red flag warning, meaning weather is conducive to the spread of a fire. The red flag warning is in effect from 5 a.m. Wednesday to 5 p.m. Thursday, according to National Weather Service forecast posted at 4:30 a.m.
On Tuesday afternoon, schools throughout the county announced plans to close Wednesday, many for two days. Locals scrambled for generators and waited in long lines at gas stations to fill up in case pumps lost power overnight.
It became clear on Wednesday morning that much of the city of Napa still had power, but it was hit-or-miss from street to street, said city spokesperson Jaina French. City Hall and the Community Services Building remained open, she said.
Street lights at Soscol Avenue and Streblow Drive, and Soscol and Imola avenues were down, she said. Lights at most big intersections were up and running.
Dry air, strong winds
The Bay Area forecast noted that relative humidity in northern Napa County dropped into the single digits overnight Tuesday.
The period of main concern was to start late Wednesday afternoon and peak during the night, when winds in the Napa and Sonoma hills were expected to reach up to 58 mph. The weather service predicted gusts 65 mph or higher may develop around sunset Wednesday and continue through Thursday morning.
Significant overnight winds combining with dry air and fuels will create critical fire conditions through Thursday, the weather service said. The strongest winds are generally expected in the North and East Bay Hills, at elevations above 1,000 feet.
Officials prepare for dangerous weather
Cal Fire increased staffing levels statewide in anticipation of red flag warnings across the state, according to a Tuesday morning press release.
The Napa County Sheriff’s Office, and Napa and Calistoga Police Departments said they had extra staff on hand to deal with traffic or other issues.
The county has activated its Emergency Operations Center to field calls from the public, post maps of affected areas and assist people with medical needs who need power but are affected by the shutoff.
Napa County is operating a Public Information Line from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily at 707-299-1501.