Northern California’s electric company turned the power off for hundreds of thousands of customers Wednesday – and then back on for some – during a dramatic day that caused confusion and angry reactions from both the public and public officials.
Pacific Gas & Electric Co. shut down power to more than 600,000 homes and businesses, an estimated 2-million-plus Northern California residents, creating the largest intentional blackout in its history.
The move was billed as a last-resort defensive tactic to avoid wildfires amid high winds that whipped through the state Wednesday and are expected to continue Thursday. The utility warned that power likely would be out for days and possibly a week in some places.
Yet, as its engineered interruption began to roll out to more residents, the utility said it had begun to restore power to some select areas, thanks to last-minute power grid tweaks.
“We have identified limited areas to safely re-energize by reconfigured our system,” said Sumeet Singh, a PG&E wildfire safety program vice president.
PG&E says it has brought service back to 50,000 customers in the Sierra Foothills as of Thursday morning, saying winds had died down enough in some areas to allow them to send inspection crews out to power lines. The company has not yet said when it believes it can start turning more power back on.
Officials say they have received “many” reports of damage to shut power lines during this week’s wind storms, but say there have been no fires caused by power lines as multiple small fires have popped up around the north state since Wednesday.
Also, because winds in the far north state are not as strong as first forecast, PG&E hopes to return electricity to another 60,000 to 80,000 customers in the Humboldt area earlier than anticipated, after power-line inspections. It did not offer a re-energization time, however.
The agency cut power to the first 500,000 customers in wine country, northern Sacramento Valley and the Sierra Nevada foothill counties just after midnight Wednesday.
The second phase, cutting power to another 234,000 estimated customers, began Wednesday afternoon and evening. Those affected counties were Alameda, Alpine, Contra Costa, Mariposa, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, San Joaquin, Stanislaus, and Tuolumne.
Also, given changing weather conditions, PG&E officials said Wednesday evening they likely will only cut power to 4,000 Kern County customers during a third phase of blackouts, instead of an initially expected 46,000. Those shutdowns are expected on Thursday.
In total, the shutdowns could ultimately affect 16 percent of the utility’s 5 million customers, across 34 counties.
The biggest wildfire scare thus far came in the early hours of Thursday, when a rapidly spreading wildfire broke out in the Contra Costa County town of Moraga shortly after 1 a.m.
More than 150 firefighters with the Merrill-Orinda Fire Department and Cal Fire’s Santa Clara Unit responded to a wildfire that spread rapidly in the hills to 40 acres, and prompted evacuation orders for dozens of homes in the town’s Sandy Ranch neighborhood. However, forward progress of that fire was halted by around 3:30 a.m., and Cal Fire confirmed via Twitter a couple of hours later that all evacuation orders had been lifted.
Wednesday proved to be an unusual day. Residents of the Sierra Nevada foothills, whose electricity was turned off at midnight, lined up at daybreak at local Home Depots to buy generators, only to find out the stores had sold out the day before.
Others searched in vain for an open gas station. Some went looking simply for a hot cup of coffee, driving through intersection after intersection of darkened signal lights.
In Napa County, wineries turned on the generators to keep the frenetic harvest season going. In the Bay Area, it took a last-minute scramble to find generators to keep open the Caldecott Tunnel on Highway 24, the key artery for East Bay commuters into San Francisco.
And, reportedly, a motorist fired a gunshot at a passing PG&E vehicle in Colusa County a few hours before the planned outages, underscoring the public’s anger at the giant utility. That prompted PG&E to put up barricades around its San Francisco headquarters Wednesday, and to issue a public appeal: “We know that turning off the power for safety is not popular with some, but it is needed for public safety,” PG&E said. “We remind our customers that our employees are your neighbors and they are out in our service area doing their jobs.”
PG&E officials, who had announced the pending power outage on Monday, said they were only doing it as a last resort to avoid causing a wildfire from any potential power line failure amid high winds that began coursing through the state Wednesday. The National Weather Service forecasts continued high winds on Thursday, tailing off in the afternoon.
“We understand the impact that turning off power has on our customers and our communities,” Singh said. “This is not a decision we take lightly. This decision is all about public safety. We took this step as a last resort.”
Sacramento County, which gets its electricity from the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, not PG&E, so far has not had its power cut. SMUD officials say are monitoring their power lines, but believe they are sturdy enough to withstand the mountain winds.
The frustration Wednesday started at the top with one of the utility company’s sharpest critics.
“I’m outraged because it didn’t have to happen,” Governor Gavin Newsom told reporters at a news conference in San Diego. “They’re in bankruptcy due to their terrible management going back decades. They’ve created these conditions, it was unnecessary.”
Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, has been a frequent critic of the publicly traded service provider, expressed even more anger, calling the move “Third World,” and wandering what was behind the decision to cut power so dramatically.
The event, called a Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS), is the sixth that PG&E has imposed in the last year, and the third in the last month. But it stands out dramatically: If PG&E follows through on its plans, it will have cut service to up to 800,000 customers over two days, some of them in densely populated areas, such as the East Bay hills, a move that dwarfs the previous most expansive PSPS, one year ago, when the utility cut power to 60,000 foothill customers.
“The huge numbers targeted by PG&E tell us two things. First and foremost: The potential for fire danger is serious and people must be prepared,” Hill said. “Second: PG&E clearly hasn’t made its system safe. These shutdowns are supposed to be surgical. Shutdowns that could impact as many as 800,000 people in 34 of our 58 counties are by no means surgical.
“Shutdowns are an extreme and a temporary safety tactic, they are not a safety strategy. PG&E needs to harden its system, make it resilient and make it safe, and not make power shutdowns the go-to response.”
State Sen. Scott Weiner, D-San Francisco, called the scale of the blackout “completely unacceptable.”
“While targeted blackouts can help prevent wildfires, we can’t let PG&E normalize these blackouts,” he said.
A big question remains unanswered: When will power be fully restored?
PG&E officials say they plan to move quickly when the National Weather Service lifts its high-wind red flag warning, which could occur in some areas by Thursday mid-day. Other areas will see the warning continue into Friday.
But power cannot be restored until 45 helicopters and 6,000 ground crews inspect “every inch” of the shut power lines to make sure they are in working order and not damaged.
Those inspections and repairs could take days, officials said. The power may be out in some areas for as many as five days after the winds die down. Utility officials said they will attempt to restore power on a priority basis, but have not said what priority determinations they plan to make.
The governor and state Office of Emergency Services says they are standing by, in command centers, to assist locals should counties need help. PG&E meanwhile has set up 28 day shelters for residents, with water, electronics charging stations, air conditioning and other services.
North state residents expressed frustration as Wednesday dawned without power, some accusing the utility of way overdoing it to avoid more wildfire lawsuits.
The utility, which is in bankruptcy proceedings, is facing tens of billions of dollars of potential liability from 2017 and 2018 fires caused by failed power lines, often in high wind conditions. That includes last November’s Camp Fire, which destroyed the Butte County town of Paradise and killed 85 people.
Debbie Pebley of Placerville drove to Shingle Springs to buy gas because there were no stations open in her town. She said she saw three places open: Raley’s, Home Depot and a coffee shop. “Everything else is closed. I drove from one end of town to the other,” she said.
She is one of many people who are expressing doubts about the need for PG&E to shut off power to so many people. “They said it was going to be a big wind event. There hasn’t been any wind up there in Placerville so far,” she said.
PG&E, in response, said that it is shutting down power lines in high-wind areas that serve cities and counties elsewhere where winds may not be as fierce.
One resident says she was caught completely by surprise when the power went off in Loomis. Deborah Andreotti-Giles tried to get fuel Wednesday morning but found two nearby gas stations closed. She tried to get coffee, but the Starbucks was closed. She was headed to Raley’s to see if it was open.
“I don’t get regular TV, so I didn’t hear anything about this,” she said. “I woke up at midnight last night and everything is shut off. I am not prepared. I am so annoyed. PG&E’s failures is why we are in the mess we are in. We pay them a lot of money. We’ve had our prices hiked a lot of times. I don’t feel like it is right. I am very, very upset and annoyed over it.”
A woman in an emergency day center PG&E set up in Auburn was among the many on Wednesday who were using the word “outrage” to describe their feelings about the outage.
Dixie LaRouche, 79, was unable to charge the neuro-stimulator implanted in her back recently for her neuropathy. She called 911 and the fire department told them to go to the resource center at the Auburn fairgrounds. “This is a God send for us,” said Ted LaRouche, her husband.
But she, said, “it’s really bad timing,” she said. “I don’t think (the power outage) is necessary. I’m outraged it’s going on.”
Shelby Frank of Grass Valley, who was having coffee in a Raley’s Wednesday morning, said the power is out at her house but she is not frustrated. “It’s a means to an end. I think it is a good idea. I willing to go through whatever it takes to make sure we don’t have another wildfire. I have seen what it can do.”