State’s largest utility cuts power to 1.5 million due to wildfire risks in Northern California

More than 1.5 million people in Northern California were in the dark Thursday, most for a second day, after the state’s largest utility cut off electricity to more customers to prevent wind-fuelled wildfires amid dry weather and strong winds sweeping through the region.

One of the areas where residents lost power was Moraga, Calif. — a suburb located east of Oakland, Calif. — where officials ordered people to leave about 100 homes as a wildfire spread in the hills early Thursday. Evacuation orders were lifted hours later for about 50 homes.

Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) cut power to more than 300,000 people in the San Francisco Bay Area late Wednesday night, where forecasters say wind gusts reached speeds of 110 km/h early Thursday on some hills.

More than one million people lost power earlier Wednesday after the utility shut off power in wine country north of San Francisco, the agricultural Central Valley and 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, Calif.

There was some good news: PG&E announced that by reconfiguring its power system, it had restored electricity to 44,000 customers who weren’t in areas of high fire risk, and it could bring back power to 60,000 to 80,000 customers in the Humboldt area, where gusty winds had subsided.

Also because of shifting forecasts, the utility said it was reducing the third phase of its blackout plan, set to begin Thursday, to only about 4,600 customers in Kern County — one-tenth of the original estimate.

Frustration with PG&E mounting

PG&E took drastic action because of hot, dry Diablo winds sweeping into Northern California, said Scott Strenfel, PG&E’s principal meteorologist. They were also part of a California-wide weather system that will produce Santa Ana winds in the south in the next day or so, he said.

The unpopular move by PG&E that disrupted daily life was prompted by weather forecasts and came after catastrophic fires sent the utility into bankruptcy and forced it to take more aggressive steps to prevent blazes. The city of San Francisco itself is not in the power cutoff zone.

Unsurprisingly, the unprecedented blackouts sparked anger. A customer threw eggs at a PG&E office in Oroville, Calif.. A PG&E truck was hit by a bullet that shattered a window in Colusa County before Wednesday’s outages, although authorities couldn’t immediately say whether it was targeted. PG&E put up barricades around its San Francisco headquarters.

Moraga, a Bay Area suburb where the wildfire is burning, is without power after Pacific Gas and Electric preemptively cut service hoping to prevent wildfires during dry, windy conditions throughout Northern California. (Noah Berger/The Associated Press)

“We realize and understand the impact and the hardship” from the outages, said Sumeet Singh, head of PG&E’s Community Wildfire Safety Program. But he urged people not to take it out on PG&E workers.

Overall, about 734,000 customers and as many as two million people could be affected. PG&E has warned that they might have to do without power for days after the winds subside because “every inch” of the power system must be inspected by helicopters and thousands of ground workers and declared safe before the grid is reactivated.

“It’s just kind of scary. It feels worse than Y2K. We don’t know how long,” Tianna Pasche, of Oakland, said before her area was powered down. “My two kids — their school situation keeps moving every second. It’s not clear if we need to pack for a week and go out of town or what to do. So I’m just trying to make sure we have water, food, charging stations and gas.”

“For me, this is a major inconvenience in my life as a parent but also, if it saves a life, I’m not going to complain about it,” she said.

Residents hopeful that outages end soon

Residents of the Oakland Hills, where a wildfire in 1991 killed 25 people and destroyed thousands of homes, spent the morning buying bottled water, getting cash and filling their cars with gas.

In the El Dorado Hills east of Sacramento, Calif., Ruth Self and her son were taking an outage in stride while leaving a Safeway grocery store that had been stripped nearly bare of bottled water and ice.

Self said she wasn’t upset, given the lives lost nearly a year ago in Paradise, Calif., invoking images of people who burned in their cars trying to escape.

“I just can’t imagine,” she said. “Hopefully [the outages] are only for a couple days. I think it’s more of a positive than a negative. Ask me again on Friday night when I haven’t had a shower in two days, when I’ve had to spend two days playing card games.”

A car drives through a darkened neighbourhood as power shutdowns continue in Oakland, Calif. (Noah Berger/The Associated Press)

Southern California Edison warned that it might cut power to nearly 174,000 customers in nine counties, including Los Angeles and its surrounding areas. San Diego Gas & Electric has notified about 30,000 customers they could lose power in backcountry areas.

While many people said the blackouts were a necessity, others were outraged — the word that Gov. Gavin Newsom used in arguing that PG&E should have been working on making its power system sturdier and more weather-proof.

“They’re in bankruptcy due to their terrible management going back decades,” Newsom said in San Diego. “They’ve created these conditions. It was unnecessary.”