Tuolumne County now has an interactive web page devoted to Tuolumne County’s PG&E public safety power shutoff event information, powered by ArcGIS software created by Environmental Systems Research Institute, also known as Esri, based in San Bernardino County. The page is at https://tuolumne.maps.arcgis.com/apps/MapSeries/index.html?appid=4cdade575a164cf8af33bcf4d9676a9b online.

As darkness fell Wednesday evening on more than 55,000 powerless Pacific Gas and Electric customers in Calaveras and Tuolumne counties, two PG&E vice presidents and a PG&E weatherman staged a briefing in downtown San Francisco to justify the need for unprecedented multi-day public safety power shutoffs impacting up to 800,000 customers.

"We understand the impact turning power off has on our customers and communities," said Sumeet Singh, a vice president for asset-risk management and wildfire safety. "It’s not a decision we take lightly. We’d like to remind customers why we are making this decision. It's public safety. We’re committed to reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfire events."

The so-called devil winds coming offshore and stirring up red flag warnings for chances of extreme fire weather up and down the Golden State are part of what Scott Strenfel, PG&E principal meteorologist, called a Diablo windstorm, coming across Northern California and moving south, from the west slope Sierra Nevada down to Southern California.

Strenfel said 50 mile-per-hour winds were recorded earlier Wednesday near Redding.

"We’re seeing the same we’ve seen in previous offshore Diablo wind events," Strenfel said. "This is a high risk event. A high risk of significant fires."

Singh said once the dangerous winds subside, PG&E has 45 helicopters and 6,300 people on the ground ready to do visual safety inspections during daylight hours on power lines in the 30 to 35 counties impacted by PG&E's planned public safety power shutoffs.

Singh and Strenfel said they understand some people are angry having their power shut off with no trace of dangerous winds in or near their communities. They said some areas have been shut off entirely due to "the interconnectedness of the grid."

Also Wednesday evening, Liz Peterson with Tuolumne County's office of emergency services, said "PG&E’s weather modeling continues to show that we should expect a strong wind event overnight. However PG&E will continue to monitor the weather and will start sharing restoration information and timing as soon as possible tomorrow."

Peterson also said there were some apparent issues with AT&T earlier Wednesday. She said she didn't have a lot of details and she believed it was localized to the downtown Sonora area, and she would try to get more information.

Pacific Gas and Electric grid controllers started shutting off power in Calaveras and Tuolumne counties Wednesday afternoon, impacting more than 58,000 PG&E customers in both counties, about two hours before red flag warning winds and fire dangers were expected to hit the Mother Lode at 5 p.m., emergency coordinators in San Andreas and Sonora said Wednesday afternoon.

Customers of PG&E began noticing power shutoffs at 3:30 p.m. Customers in Arnold and other towns in Calaveras County saw their power cut about the same time. The Tuolumne County emergency operations center was running on generators, Liz Peterson with Tuolumne’s Office of Emergency Services said Wednesday afternoon.

The wind event was still anticipated to hit Tuolumne County but had not started by 7 p.m. and are expected to last until around noon tomorrow, said Peterson.

Tuolumne County now has an interactive web page devoted to Tuolumne County’s PG&E public safety power shutoff event information, powered by ArcGIS software created by Environmental Systems Research Institute, also known as Esri, based in San Bernardino County. The page is at https://arcg.is/0zfv5y online.

Pacific Gas and Electric has also added a new website www.pgealerts.com for the public to access shutoff information and estimated restoration times, Peterson said.

The shutdowns in Calaveras County are expected to take about two hours, John K. Osbourn, the Calaveras OES director since mid-summer, said Wednesday afternoon.

“The decision to turn off the power and the speed at which it is restored is planned and

managed solely by PG&E,” Osborn said in an update. “Citizens are strongly urged to prepare for being without power for several days.”

Earlier Wednesday, Osborn said about 2,000 Calaveras County residents had their power shut off by PG&E. As of 2 p.m., communities with power shutoffs in effect included the Mokelumne Hill area and West Point.

Local outrage

Even before PG&E power shutoffs hit the Central Sierra, questionable forecast maps issued by the National Weather Service to haphazard flow of public information from Pacific Gas and Electric, the reasoning and rollout for the first wind-driven public safety power shutoffs to hit the Mother Lode have sparked an inferno of criticism in Calaveras and Tuolumne counties.

Bemused customers waiting in lines at the Lower Savemart on Tuesday summed up much of the local frustration with unnecessary expectations of an overhyped impending apocalypse, more than 18 hours before electricity lines got de-energized in Tuolumne County.

Raised eyebrows, complaints about predicted power shutoffs creating unneeded competition for bottled water, generators, and gasoline, and wry jokes about forecasts for winds that may or may not arrive were shared in line, where short-handed cashiers worked never-ending lines of hoarding shoppers.

As of 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, little to none of the predicted red flag warning winds were blowing in Sonora, and nobody with the National Weather Service in Sacramento could explain why the southern edge of their red flag warning area map was a combination of Tuolumne County’s south border and the north border of Yosemite National Park -- two geopolitical lines drawn by map-makers more than a century ago.

Meteorologist Sierra Littlefield said Wednesday morning there’s a point-and-click map programmed to break down information by county. She agreed the map should be changed to include more detailed visual forecast data based on meteorology and science, not county and park boundary lines.

On the ground before noon at Tuolumne County’s primary emergency operations center, in the county admin building on South Green Street, county OES coordinator Liz Peterson said she and other county staff were trying to make sure the county can continue to offer essential services and relocate county staff to buildings with backup power before power shutdowns hit Tuolumne County.

All public safety services including law enforcement and firefighting response will be fully operational, Peterson said.

“The biggest challenge by far has been the broad impacts to our county residents,” Peterson said. “Most other counties who are being impacted by this public safety power shutoff event have isolated pockets or areas that will be experiencing power loss.”

Because of how PG&E’s circuits and transmission lines are set up in Tuolumne County, all the county’s electricity customers will be impacted, including all 30 schools, all businesses, all water and utility providers, all hospital and other medical facilities, emergency services, Peterson said. Very few counties have the same significant impacts.

Asked for more information about how PG&E’s circuits and transmission lines are set up in Tuolumne County, Peterson referred questions to Pacific Gas and Electric. A spokesperson for the utility had not responded to those questions as of 2:45 p.m.

All administration, including the county auditor, clerk, recorder’s office, assessor, public safety including the Sheriff’s Office, animal control, county fire, ambulance, the District Attorney and Public Defender are expected to remain open, Peterson said. Community development, public works, including roads and airport, are open as well, and social services and the county ag offices.

‘They’re not real clear on why’

De-energization for Tuolumne County, as part of a phase two implemented by Pacific Gas and Electric, was expected to take place around noon, but there was a “definite possibility” it could be pushed back about an hour to around 1 p.m. Peterson said Wednesday morning and that remained unchanged as of 10:30 a.m.

“It takes a few hours for PG&E to complete the de-energization process so know everyone’s power won’t go off at exactly the same time,” Peterson said.

In Calaveras County, public safety power shutoffs were billed and expected to occur shortly after midnight, early Wednesday, and by 11:30 a.m. most of the county still had power. Albert Alt, the county administrative officer since April, said Calaveras has been on a PG&E phase one list for shutoffs beginning at midnight. The only part of the county without power was a section near Mokelumne Hill, near one edge of the 110-square-mile 2015 Butte Fire footprint, which got shut off early Wednesday.

“They’re not real clear on why that’s the case,” Alt said of his contacts with Pacific Gas and Electric. “We were supposed to be dark at this point.”

As of 11:30 a.m., spokespersons for PG&E were not available to comment and the utility was apologizing to customers again on social media for delays and problems with a public safety power shutoff information website.

“We are experiencing a high volume of traffic to our website & understand your frustration w/ the delay of accessing #PSPS related web pages,” PG&E communications staff posted to Facebook at 11:15 a.m. Wednesday. “We apologize for the inconvenience and thank you for your patience. Our team is working as quickly as possible to restore access.”

Pacific Gas and Electric communications staff have been saying this week the shutoffs are necessary because strong winds are expected to bring extreme fire danger to the central and northern Sierra.

When does it end?

As many as 800,000 customers could be impacted in what the utility said would be a rolling shutdown, with different times in different regions depending on the strength of winds.

An all-clear is expected once winds subside on Thursday. It could take up to five days to inspect power lines and restore electricity in areas where winds damage power lines and other infrastructure. Areas with little or no damage may have power restored faster.

Brandi Merlo with PG&E marketing and communications said before noon Wednesday a small portion of Calaveras County was shut off on the first wave.

As for the PG&E public safety power shutoff website, PG&E tech teams were “fully engaged and working on multiple fronts to address the issue as quickly as we can,” Merlo said.

“On Monday, in preparation for increased traffic, we doubled the database capacity on our site, but even with that, we are seeing seven or eight times the normal traffic on the site,” Merlo said. “We’ll keep everyone posted on progress, and our goal is to have this issue resolved as quickly as possible.”

On Tuesday, Gavin Newsome, the California governor since January this year, blasted Pacific Gas and Electric’s forced power shutdown plans. He told reporters in Oakland people should be outraged by PG&E's move.

"No one is satisfied with this, no one is happy with this," Newsome said.

The utility giant needs to upgrade and fix equipment so multi-county outages are not the norm going forward, Newsome told reporters. PG&E has warned of possible widespread shutoffs since Monday, prompting residents from the Mother Lode to Redding to swarm stores for supplies and prepare for possible multiple days without electricity to charge phones and computers, power automatic garage doors, keep refrigerators cold, and freezers freezing.

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.com or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.

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