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Millions without power as PG&E shuts down grid amid critical fire danger

Los Angeles Times logo Los Angeles Times 6 days ago By Hannah Fry, Joseph Serna and Patrick McGreevy, Los Angeles Times
a fire truck parked in a forest: The Camp fire was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history. A state investigation found that Pacific Gas & Electric equipment caused the blaze, which killed 86 people. © Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times/TNS The Camp fire was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history. A state investigation found that Pacific Gas & Electric equipment caused the blaze, which killed 86 people.

LOS ANGELES — Large swaths of Northern California awoke to darkness Wednesday as Pacific Gas & Electric began a sweeping plan to shut off power to about 800,000 customers in a desperate attempt to avoid wildfires sparked by wind-damaged electrical equipment.

The first power cutoffs, affecting about 513,000 customers, began shortly after midnight in several counties around Sacramento, including Placer and Yuba. As strengthening winds continued to roll out into the early-morning hours, millions of Californians will eventually be left in the dark.

By 12:30 a.m., power had been cut to large portions of wine country, including Napa and Sonoma valleys. Portions of Marin County just north of San Francisco lost power next. Minutes later, the utility cut service in El Dorado County and sections of the upper Sacramento Valley. By 5 a.m., the outages had extended to Humboldt County to the north, Marin County to the south and as far as Nevada County to the east, according to a map provided by the utility.

The second phase of the shutoff is expected to occur around noon in areas around Silicon Valley and the East San Francisco Bay. About 234,000 customers in Alameda, Alpine, Contra Costa, Mariposa, San Joaquin, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties are expected to lose power between noon and 5 p.m.

The utility said Wednesday it also was considering shutting off power to about 42,000 customers in the southernmost portion of PG&E’s service area, but specific locations have not been determined.

On Tuesday, Southern California Edison announced it also was considering preventive power outages. The utility said that given the anticipated strong Santa Ana winds, power could be cut off to more than 106,000 customers in parts of eight Southern California counties, including Los Angeles County.

Southern California Edison’s possible outage also could affect customers in San Bernardino and Riverside counties as well as areas in Ventura County and portions of Kern, Tulare, Inyo and Mono counties.

The PG&E blackouts are expected to ultimately affect 34 counties in Central and Northern California, more than half of all counties in the state.

It marks the largest power shutdown to date as utilities across California attempt to reduce wildfire risks in the face of heavy winds. Equipment malfunctions have been tied to some of the state’s most destructive and deadly fires, including last year’s Camp fire, which devastated the town of Paradise, killing 85 people, and the 2017 wine country blazes.

“The safety of our customers and the communities we serve is our most important responsibility, which is why PG&E has decided to turn power off to customers during this widespread, severe wind event. We understand the effects this event will have on our customers and appreciate the public’s patience as we do what is necessary to keep our communities safe and reduce the risk of wildfire,” said Michael Lewis, PG&E’s senior vice president of Electric Operations.

Based on the latest forecasts, the utility says it expects high winds will last through midday Thursday, with peak winds reaching up to 70 mph from early Wednesday through Thursday morning. Once the fire weather subsides, PG&E will inspect and test the grid both with on-site crews and electronically before restoring service. This could take up to five days, a company official said.

The power shutoffs have generated backlash, with some residents saying they create a whole new set of dangers as they try to watch for news about fires. There is also concern about those with health issues who rely on medical equipment that must be plugged in.

“I think this is a tacit admission that they recognize their liability for huge wildfires we’ve had and that their grid has a lot of deficiencies,” James Moore, an attorney from Auburn, said of the widespread outage.

Moore realized power had been cut off when his CPAP machine stopped working overnight on a business trip to Sonoma County. Moore and his wife, Kristen, tried to prepare as best they could with limited notice, filling cars with gas and buying ice to keep refrigerated items cold, he said.

Their home has electric appliances, so cooking will be limited to a propane grill they use for camping. The outage also means the couple, whose home is equipped with an electric pump that pulls water from the street to the property, also will not have running water.

“I wish they would have been more transparent in informing people earlier of their plan to do these kind of power shutoffs,” Moore said. “I recognize the weather is not something they can predict very far in the future, but the fact they’re turning off power in 34 counties is a humongous inconvenience, to say the least.”

Daniel Swain, a UCLA climate scientist, wrote on Twitter that the outage is “a necessary bad idea in the short term.”

“It has high likelihood of preventing additional catastrophes like in Santa Rosa/Paradise, but shifts costs from utilities to communities in highly inequitable way and creates new fire risks,” he said.

Assembly Republican leader Marie Waldron (R-Escondido) said PG&E’s announcement is a sign of how far the state has fallen behind in efforts to prevent catastrophic wildfires.

“This is the frustrating result of decades of forest mismanagement and aging energy infrastructure,” Waldron said. “These shutoffs highlight the need to invest in vegetation management, update our energy grid and help Californians harden their homes against wildfires.”

The state Office of Emergency Services has been in contact with the emergency workers managing the impact of power shutoffs, according to spokesman Brian Ferguson.

“It’s clear that this is a complex and rapidly evolving challenge,” Ferguson said. “We continue to work with local and state law enforcement and local community leaders to minimize the impact of these power outages and keep residents safe.”

The outage resulted in the cancellation of classes at schools across Northern California, including at large college campuses like the University of California, Berkeley. The campus was notified by PG&E that power would be cut to most of its core at 11 a.m., according to a statement by Marc Fisher, UC Berkeley’s vice chancellor for administration, and Alicia Johnson, director of Berkeley’s Office of Emergency Management.

“The campus, however, will remain open, though services will be limited,” the officials said, noting that all employees would be paid and most would not be required to come into work. The outage at the campus could last up to 48 hours.

The California State University system had to cancel classes at Sonoma State and Humboldt State, which together have about 17,000 students, according to spokesman Michael Uhlenkamp.

All campuses in the El Dorado Union High School District in the Sierra Foothills east of Sacramento also were closed Wednesday. Supt. Ron Carruth told parents in an email that the district was in contact with PG&E and would decide by 8 p.m. whether classes would resume Thursday.

“It’s an unfortunate disruption,” he said. “Safety of the campus community is always a top priority, so as a precautionary measure, those campuses are closed, with classes and campus events being canceled until further notice.”

Online chat boards dedicated to monitoring police and fire in rural counties were filled with residents asking for help and advice. Some said the short notice of blackouts had caused turmoil as people searched for open gas stations to buy fuel for generators, and rushed to buy batteries and other supplies.

Brady Miller, a resident of Red Bluff, about two hours north of Sacramento, said he barely had cell service and no way to charge his phone, lamenting he had and only flashlights and canned goods to get through the power outage.

“It sucks,” he said. “24-hour notice gave panic to our community.”

State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, said the state is acting to make sure similar outages do not become common in the future.

“People rely on electricity for their medicine, their food and their livelihood. This is a completely unacceptable state of affairs. While targeted blackouts can help prevent wildfires, we can’t let PG&E normalize these blackouts,” he said.


(Los Angeles Times staff writer Anita Chabria contributed to this report.)


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