Undergrounding Power lines
PG&E could conduct a “public safety power shutoff” across most of Northern California this week. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Update, Oct. 8: 5:15 p.m. The city of Berkeley is advising those who will be without electricity and live in the Berkeley hills, and who believe they would have trouble evacuating in an emergency, to “make plans to leave as soon as possible.” Those who choose to stay in the hills should make plans for food and water for six days without electricity, the county said in an AC Alert advisory issued around 5 p.m. Tuesday.

UC Berkeley has canceled all classes on Wednesday after it was told by PG&E that most of the core campus will be without power starting at 8 a.m. that day. In an email to its community, the university said while the campus will remain open, services will be limited, and the Student Union will be closed.

Update, Oct. 8, 2 p.m.: Nearly 800,000 PG&E customers will lose power starting just after midnight Tuesday. In a phone call with Berkeleyside and a press release, the utility said it has decided to implement the “public safety power shutoff” it began warning about Monday.

In an initial outage map released by the utility, parts of the Berkeley Hills and North Berkeley were included. The outage will extend throughout the Bay Area and Northern California. The Tuesday afternoon press release included even more regions than initially targeted, including Marin and Humboldt counties. Winds are expected to reach 40-55 miles per hour, “with isolated gusts up to 60 to 70 mph,”increasing fire risk in the regions scheduled for the shutoff, according to PG&E.

“It is very possible that customers may be affected by a power shutoff even though they are not experiencing extreme weather conditions in their specific location,” the release said. “This is because the electric system relies on power lines working together to provide electricity across cities, counties and regions.”

The city of Berkeley is recommending vulnerable hills residents prepare evacuate — and others gather enough food and water for six days without electricity.

“If you live in the potentially affected areas and you have accessibility needs or you use life sustaining medical equipment that is compromised during an outage, please plan to evacuate and please also call 311 so we can get your information,” the city said in press release. (See the city alert for more information on preparation and fire safety.)

Berkeley Unified said the district expects to keep all its schools open Wednesday. PG&E is required to alert school districts if outages are planned for schools, and has not done so for any in Berkeley, said Superintendent Brent Stephens in a statement. However, a number of BUSD schools are located within the boundaries of PG&E’s initial likely outage map. The district said school lunches will be served even if power ends up getting shut off.

The shutoff will roll out in stages as the winds travel, said spokeswoman Tamar Sarkissian, and will last several days.

PG&E will open one “community resource center” in Alameda County, at Merritt College in Oakland, where visitors can charge devices and drink bottled water during daytime hours. There will be no centers set up in Berkeley.

There has been widespread confusion since PG&E first announced the potential outage on Monday, in large part because the utility’s website with information and maps has been down for hours Tuesday. Berkeley City Councilwoman Lori Droste tweeted that the utility confirmed to the city of Berkeley that the outage was scheduled while spokespersons were still telling the public and the press that no decision had been made yet.

PG&E said alerts have been going out to customers who will be affected by the shutoff via calls, texts and emails.

Update, Oct. 8, 10:30 a.m.: A PG&E spokeswoman said the utility still hasn’t decided whether to shut off power for portions of an unprecedented 30 counties throughout Northern California. If the “public safety power shutoff” occurs, it would most likely begin early Wednesday morning, the start of a high-wind period expected to last through Thursday afternoon, said Tamar Sarkissian.

“It could take several days to fully restore power after the weather passes and safety inspections are completed,” Sarkissian said. She explained that crews will need to access equipment by foot and through narrow roads in some locations before confirming it’s safe to restore power there.

Many residents have noted that PG&E’s webpage displaying the map of the likely outage area has been down Tuesday morning. Sarkissian said “our digital team is working to determine the issue and get it back up live as soon as possible.”

When it’s working, the website will also include information on the locations of temporary “community resource centers” PG&E will establish in the case of a shutoff. Residents will be able to access restrooms, bottled water and device charging stations at the air-conditioned centers, Sarkissian said.

PG&E’s meteorologists are “constantly monitoring the weather,” and will make the final call “based on a host of factors,” Sarkissian said. The utility aims to send out alerts 48 and 24 hours before a potential outage, and well as a final notification giving a “window of time” once a public safety power shutoff plan is confirmed. Initial alerts went out Monday.

Update, Oct. 8, 8:30 a.m.: Alameda County issued an advisory around 8 a.m. Tuesday to say that it was “likely” PG&E would be disconnecting power to “over 35,000 residences and businesses in Alameda County starting early Wednesday morning, Oct. 9. Power is expected to be off up to five days.” To see if you are affected by shutoff, visit the PG&E potential outage map. (As of 9 a.m. on Tuesday, the webpage where the map is displayed appeared to be down, however.) Berkeleyside has reached out to PG&E for more information and will update the story as soon as it’s provided. Don’t miss Berkeleyside’s story from August about how to prepare for a power shutoff event.

Original story: PG&E could preemptively shut off power for a huge swath of Northern California on Wednesday and Thursday.

The utility announced Monday that a potential “strong and dry wind event” could prompt the “public safety power shutoff” in around 30 California counties, including Alameda. The National Weather Service has issued a fire weather alert for much of Northern California this week.

“The dry, windy weather pattern is expected to reach from the northern portions of PG&E’s service territory and down through the Sacramento Valley before spreading into the central areas of the state including most of the Bay Area,” PG&E said in a news alert.

Buried within PG&E’s website is a map showing where the outage could take place, including the Berkeley and Oakland hills, and other parts of North Berkeley and the Cal campus area.

The shutoff, potentially lasting from Wednesday morning until Thursday afternoon, is meant to target fire-prone areas only, but could end up affecting any of PG&E’s 5 million customers because of power line connections, the utility said. (Although Berkeley switched over to East Bay Community Energy last year, PG&E still manages the power lines throughout the city and beyond.)

A potential outage map on the PG&E website shows all of the Berkeley Hills and surrounding areas as contenders for the shut-off. Screenshot: PG&E

The state granted PG&E and other utilities the authority to shut off power last year, after massive wildfires killed dozens of people in California. The utility’s equipment was found responsible for starting several of the fires, including the deadliest in the state’s history, the 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise.

This summer PG&E launched a new website to help customers prepare for wildfires and potential public safety power shutoffs. The utility gave a presentation to the Berkeley City Council in July about the potential impacts of such shutoffs on local residents. Officials raised concerns about the effect on people who use electricity to power medical equipment, and on cell towers and reservoirs.

PG&E says up-to-date information on this week’s potential shutoff can be found online. The utility will also attempt to contact customers by phone, email and text if the shutoff is planned. Non-customers can sign up for a new Public Safety Power Shutoff Zip Code alert.

BART is unlikely to be affected by a shutoff. In an August post on its website the transit agency wrote: “A PSPS in our region is not anticipated to impact train service because BART has flexibility to pull power from other sections of our traction power supply system to replace power turned off in a PSPS, ensuring continuous train operations.”

Several Berkeley Unified schools are within the areas delineated by PG&E’s potential shutoff map, although the utility’s address finder does not currently indicate a shutoff for any BUSD schools. BUSD said in a statement Monday night it expects all schools to be open Wednesday but will keep the school community updated.

In its alert Monday, PG&E issued the following tips on how customers can prepare for the possible shutoff:

  • Update their contact information at pge.com/mywildfirealerts or by calling 1-866-743-6589 during normal business hours. PG&E will use this information to alert customers through automated calls, texts, and emails, when possible, prior to, and during, a Public Safety Power Shutoff.
  • Plan for medical needs like medications that require refrigeration or devices that need power.
  • Identify backup charging methods for phones and keep hard copies of emergency numbers.
  • Build or restock your emergency kit with flashlights, fresh batteries, first aid supplies and cash.
  • Keep in mind family members who are elderly, younger children and pets. Information and tips including a safety plan checklist are available at pge.com/wildfiresafety.
  • Learn more about wildfire risk and what to do before, during and after an emergency to keep your family safe at PG&E’s Safety Action Center.

This story is being updated as more information becomes available.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...