Exactly two years after the deadly Tubbs Fire began to blaze in Northern California, the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) said that it would purposefully cut power to as many as 700,000 customers in 34 of California’s 58 counties due to severe fire risk. The blackouts, which were announced less than 24 hours before the first homes and businesses in areas surrounding Sacramento and Northern California’s Wine Country lost power, are a preventative measure meant to stop electrical equipment from sparking a fire when high winds and low humidity make these parts of the Golden State a tinderbox. The outages may stretch into next week, according to San Francisco Chronicle reporters Michael Cabanatuan, Alejandro Serrano and J.D. Morris.
In announcing its decision to shut off power, PG&E pointed to a red-flag warning from the National Weather Service. From Wednesday morning to Friday morning, the Bay Area will see “extreme fire danger,” high winds and humidity levels below 20 percent. On Wednesday, gusts of around 70 miles per hour were recorded at Mt. St. Helena.
Fall in California can create the prime conditions for quickly spreading wildfires. As Matt Simon explains for Wired, a difference in air pressure drives high-speed, arid winds from northeast of the state toward the coast. These winds strip the air and vegetation, often already dehydrated from drought, of moisture. If sparks from power lines or other sources start a fire, the blaze spreads quickly in the high winds. Over the last two years, the state’s northern region weathered the most destructive wildfires in its history. A PG&E power line set off 2018’s Camp Fire, which killed 85 people, while a series of fires in 2017 felled 7,500 buildings in the wine-growing areas around Napa and Sonoma counties. In total, roughly 1.6 million acres burned each year.
After PG&E alerted the public to the impending blackouts on Tuesday, the first power shutoffs began at midnight on Wednesday morning in areas around Sacramento and the North Bay, reports KQED. Then, in a second wave of outages, many cities and towns across the Bay Area—but not San Francisco—lost power late Wednesday night. A small third wave of “proactive shutoffs,” as the company calls them, will also occur farther south. (See a map of the outages here.)
PG&E says it will first inspect and repair equipment before it begins to restore power, which may take up to five days. At a press conference on Wednesday evening, the company said 44,000 customers had already had their electricity turned back on, and that this process would pick up speed the dangerous weather conditions die down on Friday. While the shutoff will impact about 650,000 to 700,000 customers, a home or business counts as just one “customer,” so the actual number of people affected will be much larger.
Michael Wara, the director of Stanford’s Climate and Energy Policy Program, called the blackouts an “unprecedented electric reliability event for California” on Twitter. Wara estimated the power loss would affect 2.4 million people and incur an economic loss of $65 million for residential customers and up to $2.5 billion if you include business clients.
Thanks to emergency generators and power redistribution, hospitals and the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) public transportation system are expected to remain open, reports Rick Hurd of the Bay Area News Group. Emergency generators were also installed to power a critical commuting tunnel in the Berkeley Hills, and daytime emergency facilities will offer device charging, water and bathrooms. However, many schools, including the University of California, Berkeley, have temporarily closed their doors.
While the shutoffs are historic in scale, PG&E has cut off power in the Sierra Nevada and Wine Country before to prevent wildfires, Morris writes in the Chronicle. It rolled out its “Public Safety Power Shutoff” program after its equipment was implicated as a cause of some of 2017 and 2018’s fires. The initiative takes its cues, explains KQED’s Dan Brekke, from San Diego Gas and Electric Co.’s response to the 2007 Witch Fire. When regulators approved PG&E’s most recent wildfire safety plan, disability advocates voiced concern about how a sustained loss of power would affect people who depend on medical equipment, like at-home oxygen, dialysis machines or refrigerators for insulin, as KQED’s Dan Brekke and Lisa Pickoff-White reported.
The blackouts come at fraught time for the utility company, which filed for bankruptcy protection earlier this year. Recent court proceedings covered by the Sacramento Bee’s Ryan Sabalow and Tony Bizjak revealed that the company may bear responsibility for nine California fires so far in 2019 and insufficiently addressed the fire hazard posed by surrounding trees. Meanwhile, a Wall Street Journal investigation found a track record of poor power line maintenance.
Frustration has mounted at the company as the blackouts have rolled out, with residents criticizing the electric supplier for its crash-prone outage information page (PG&E said Wednesday they are building a new site). According to the Chronicle, the California Highway Patrol verified that a PG&E vehicle was shot at on Wednesday morning, and police heightened security at an Oroville PG&E office after a customer lobbed eggs at the building.
While the shutoff program is intended to diminish the risk of wildfires, it doesn’t address another fundamental problem facing the drought-ridden, fire-prone Golden State. Climate change, experts agree, will only make fire prevention even more of an uphill battle.