Thousands of Californians without power, as PG&E prepares for wildfires
Pacific Gas & Electric faces huge wildfire risk as rising winds threaten power lines
Thousands of people in California woke up in the dark Wednesday after Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) started shutting off power to households to prevent what the utility called an unprecedented wildfire danger.
California's largest utility says as many as two million people will remain without power at least through Thursday as a precaution to protect against wildfires. It is the biggest planned shutoff in the state's history.
PG&E said it cut power to more than 500,000 customers in northern California and that it plans gradually to turn off electricity to nearly 800,000 customers to prevent its equipment from sparking wildfires during hot, windy weather.
A second group of about 234,000 customers will lose power starting at noon PT, the utility said. One utility customer represents between two and three people.
The utility plans to shut off power in parts of 34 northern, central and coastal California counties to reduce the chance of fierce winds knocking down or toppling trees into power lines during a siege of hot, dry, gusty weather.
Gusts of 56 to 72 kilometres per hour were forecast to sweep a vast swath of the state, from the San Francisco Bay area to the agricultural Central Valley and especially in the Sierra Nevada foothills, where a November 2018 wildfire blamed on PG&E transmission lines killed 85 people and virtually incinerated the town of Paradise.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention said it increased staffing in preparation for extreme fire weather. Red flag warnings, issued for critical fire weather, are expected to go into effect Thursday.
Watch: Here's how some are coping with the wildfires
The winds will be the strongest and most widespread the region has seen in two years, and given the scope of the danger, there was no other choice but to stage the largest preventive blackout in state history, PG&E said.
"This is a last resort," said Sumeet Singh, head of the utility's Community Wildfire Safety Program.
However, people should be outraged by the move, Gov. Gavin Newsom said. "No one is satisfied with this, no one is happy with this," he said.
The utility needs to upgrade and fix its equipment so massive outages aren't the norm going forward, he said.
It could take as many as five days to restore power after the danger has passed because every inch of power line must be checked to make sure it isn't damaged or in danger of sparking a blaze, PG&E said.
Outages not just in fire-prone areas
The news came as residents in the region's wine country north of San Francisco marked the two-year anniversary of deadly wildfires that killed 44 and destroyed thousands of homes. San Francisco is the only county in the nine-county Bay Area where power will not be affected.
To the south, Southern California Edison said more than 106,000 of its customers in parts of eight counties could face power cuts as early as Thursday as Santa Ana winds loomed.
The cutbacks followed a plan instituted after deadly wildfires — some blamed on downed PG&E transmission lines — destroyed dozens of lives and thousands of homes in recent years and forced the utility into bankruptcy over an estimated $30 billion US in potential damages from lawsuits.
The outages Wednesday weren't limited to fire-prone areas because the utilities must turn off entire distribution and transmission lines to much wider areas to minimize the risk of wildfires.
Classes were cancelled for thousands of schoolchildren and at the University of California, Berkeley, Sonoma State University and Mills College.
The California Department of Transportation said it was installing generators to avoid closing the Caldecott Tunnel linking the East Bay to San Francisco and the Tom Lantos Tunnel on State Route 1 in Pacifica.
"The tunnels can't operate without power," Caltrans tweeted.
Mayor laments 'inexcusable' situation
PG&E had warned of the possibility of a widespread shutoff Monday, prompting residents to flock to stores for supplies as they prepared for dying cellphone batteries, automatic garage doors that won't work and lukewarm refrigerators.
Residents of the Sonoma County city of Cloverdale, population 9,300, were preparing for the possibility of zero power and downed internet and cellphone lines, as happened during the wine country fires. Cloverdale homes were not burned then, but residents were worried sick over family in burn zones and in the dark without communications, Mayor Melanie Bagby said.
She accused PG&E of failing to upgrade its equipment.
"It's inexcusable that we're in the situation that we're in," she said. "We pay our bills, and we gave PG&E a monopoly to guarantee we would have [reliable power]."
But Santa Rosa Mayor Tom Schwedhelm said he was grateful PG&E was taking proactive action. His city lost five per cent of its housing in a 2017 fire that killed 22 and torched nearly 6,000 structures in Sonoma and Napa counties. State investigators determined the fire was sparked by a private electrical system, and was not the fault of PG&E.
Hospitals would operate on backup power, but other systems could see their generators fail after a few days. Outages even posed a threat that fire hydrants wouldn't work at a time of extreme fire danger.
Residents left in the dark about power outages
PG&E set up about 30 community centres offering air conditioning, restrooms, bottled water and electronic charging stations during daylight hours.
Counties activated their emergency centres and authorities urged people to have supplies of water for several days, to keep sensitive medicines such as insulin in cool places, to drive carefully because traffic lights could be out, to have a full gas tank for emergencies and to check the food in freezers and refrigerators for spoilage after power is restored.
PG&E said it was informing customers by text and email about where and when the power would be cut. But its website, where it directed people to check whether their addresses would be affected, was not working most of the day Tuesday after being overloaded with visitors.
Retirees John and Greta Maltbie said they prepared for a widespread blackout by buying bottled water, getting cash and filling their car with gas.
But the couple in suburban Sacramento forgot to charge their cellphones and said they were unable to get information on the PG&E website, which was temporarily down after being overloaded with visitors.
The Maltbies were among three people at an air-conditioned tent set up by PG&E in the parking lot of a local church. They were charging their phones Wednesday and trying to get more information on the outage.