‘Take the time to prepare now’: Sierra foothills brace for new round of PG&E blackouts

Placerville will likely be among the region’s communities hit by a new wave of Pacific Gas & Electric power outages Wednesday and Thursday as gusty winds return to Northern California.

National Weather Service forecasters in Sacramento say critical fire weather conditions are expected Wednesday and Thursday, a last gasp of summer bringing temperatures in the mid- to high 80s along with gusty fire-feeding offshore winds.

Strong winds gusting up to 40 mph in some locations and extremely dry conditions during the day and into the overnight hours led forecasters to issue a fire weather watch.

Placerville will be without power from 5 p.m. Wednesday to noon Thursday if the anticipated wind event holds, said city officials. The town’s 11,000 residents are among 40,000 people in El Dorado County expected to spend Wednesday night in the dark.

“Take the time to prepare now,” city officials urged.

Next door in Placer County, where nearly 19,000 people from flatland Sheridan to Emigrant Gap nearly a mile above sea level could be affected, the county’s Twitter feed Tuesday morning said simply, “Be prepared Placer!”

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The question in Nevada County’s The Union newspaper, “Will they or won’t they?” On Tuesday, the answer remained unclear. PG&E had targeted more than 42,000 Nevada County customers for power outages as early as 2 p.m. Wednesday - a full three hours before El Dorado County, The Union reported, but officials had yet to confirm that by noon.

It’s all shorthand for what has become - for now - a new normal: Blackouts.

Deliberate, preplanned power outages PG&E says are necessary to avoid a repeat of the catastrophic Carr, Tubbs and Camp fires that ravaged Northern California and destroyed homes, towns and lives.

As many as 209,000 Northern Californians across 15 counties from the Sierra foothills to Yuba and Butte counties and Mendocino, Napa and Sonoma counties in the North Bay are being told to prepare for a second round of power shutdowns, just weeks after 34 of California’s 58 counties were thrust into darkness by the deliberate blackouts.

PG&E pulled the plug on more than 1.5 million residents from the North Coast to the southern tip of the Central Valley in early October as it girded for high winds, low humidity and warm early fall temperatures. The decision invoked the wrath of everyday Californians, municipal and regional leaders and the Governor’s office.

“This can’t be the new normal. It’s a false choice to say it’s hardship or safety,” Gov. Gavin Newsom told reporters earlier this month as power was being restored to residents.

Then, as now, PG&E officials maintained “we made the right call on safety” by shutting off power, Bill Johnson, the utility’s chief executive officer, said after the blackouts. “We determined we must have zero risk of a spark.”

But some areas expected to be hit by the planned blackouts Wednesday and Thursday could catch a break.

In Yuba County, emergency services officials Tuesday morning said projections of 7,500 PG&E customers affected have been downgraded to about 5,500 - a number that includes all of Wheatland and the foothill communities east of Marysville.

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Darrell Smith covers courts and California news for The Sacramento Bee. He joined The Bee in 2006 and previously worked at newspapers in Palm Springs, Colorado Springs, Colo., and Marysville. A Sacramento Valley native, Smith was born and raised at Beale Air Force Base, near Marysville.