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Representatives of Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and local public safety agencies on Monday warned local residents to be prepared for power outages that could last five to seven days if weather conditions necessitate cutting off electrical service.

The warning came during a meeting at the Joseph Centeno Government Administration Building about PG&E’s Public Safety Power Shutoff program, which is meant to prevent the utility’s equipment from starting wildfires in hot, windy and dry weather conditions. 

The meeting, which drew 35 people, was held just days after the utility instituted a four-day shutoff affecting nearly a million customers in northern and central California.

Eric Daniels, a PG&E government relations representative, began the meeting by saying that the utility hoped to communicate more effectively with customers in the event of a future shutdown. 

“Unfortunately, [the public safety power shutoff] did not go as smoothly as it should have,” he said. “In a number of instances, our communication was lacking. Our computer interface was lacking. Those are things we recognize and will be working on to improve.” 

Daniels said an outage in Santa Barbara County is likely to be more limited in scope than the recent event in northern California, but noted a widespread, multi-day outage could not be ruled out. 

If PG&E is considering a power shutoff, customers will be notified 48 hours in advance and updates will continue during the shutoff.  

Kelly Hubbard, director of the county Office of Emergency Management, said residents should make sure they are registered with PG&E and the county to get emergency notifications and prepare for potentially five to seven days without power.

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Daniels said the company was working to make its infrastructure more robust and resistant to being damaged in high winds and beefing up its weather monitoring system but was unable to say when those upgrades would be completed. 

The utility plans to install 1,300 additional weather stations and 600 video cameras in high-fire-risk locations throughout the company’s service area, he said.

The company was also examining its lines to ensure there is a buffer area between important infrastructure and trees or vegetation. 

The state recently increased the required distance between transmission lines and vegetation from 18 inches to 4 feet, but PG&E’s goal is to have 12 feet of clearance in high fire areas, Daniels said.

The utility, which filed for bankruptcy in January, has faced increased scrutiny in the aftermath of several massive forest fires, including the 2018 Camp fire that killed 86 people.

According to a Wall Street Journal investigation published in July, PG&E knew for years that its high-voltage transmission lines were dangerously outdated with the potential to spark wildfires, yet repeatedly failed to upgrade them.   

In recent years, the utility paid out several billion dollars in dividends to reward investors and spent millions on campaign contributions.

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Razi Syed covers Santa Maria City Government for Lee Central Coast Newspapers.  Follow him on Twitter @razisyed

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Santa Maria City Government

Razi Syed covers city government for the Santa Maria Times. He is a graduate of Fresno State University and New York University.