Schools and businesses close as countrys biggest utility, PG&E, cuts electricity and gas to record swath of region

Schools are closed. Traffic lights down. Tunnels dark. Businesses unopened. Hospitals running on generators.

Much of northern California is facing life without electricity or gas for as many as five to seven days, after the countrys largest utility company cut power to an unprecedented swath of the state as a preventive measure against wildfires.

The power shutoffs by Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) may affect up to 2.5 million people by the end of the week. The first wave of shutoffs began on Wednesday to portions of 20 of the states 58 counties. PG&E was expected to shut off power to 10 more later in the day.

Ian Cull (@NBCian)

Long lines at gas stations across the #BayArea ahead of the expected #poweroutage. More than 800k homes and businesses expected to lose power in next 24 hours. Could take 5-7 days to restore. @PGE4Me says shut off will to reduce fire danger.

October 9, 2019

Santa Clara county, the home of Silicon Valley, declared a local emergency on Wednesday afternoon in hopes of spurring California to declare a state of emergency.

In Santa Clara county alone, 38,250 customers will be affected, said Miguel Mrquez, chief operating officer for the county. Of those customers, 1,100 are what are called medical baseline customers that have special energy needs due to the medical equipment they have.

Swaths of wine country north of San Francisco, hit hard by wildfires in 2017 , sat in the dark for most of Wednesday, along with the region north of Sacramento devastated by the 2018 Camp fire.

The power shutoff zone stretched down the Sierra Nevada foothills and along the coast into the far north of the state, with large portions of the Bay Area set to turn off in the evening.

A sign at Marys Pizza Shack informs customers of their closure due to a PG&E power shutdown in Sonoma on Wednesday. Photograph: Christopher Chung/AP

Schools were closed in cities across the region, and universities including the University of California, Berkeley, Sonoma State and Mills College canceled classes. On Wednesday morning, the UC Berkeley campus was quiet as a summer day. The campus police sergeant Nicolas Hernandez said the department had scheduled additional officers on patrol. Were just telling people to stay out of unlit areas and parking garages for safety, he said.

The Alameda county department of environmental health issued an alert to restaurants and bars that food facilities without power must be closed for the safety of the employees and the public until power is restored. With schools out, parents were scrambling to find last-minute childcare. Californians reliant on electronic medical devices scrambled to find alternative power sources according to PG&E, 32,885 medical baseline customers live in the affected areas.

Californias transportation agency briefly considered closing a tunnel that sees about 160,000 vehicles a day, before finding the generators needed to keep it open. At least five traffic collisions involving injuries occurred at intersections without traffic lights in Santa Rosa.

For some residents in the Oakland Hills, the impending shutoffs brought up memories of past disasters.

Shirley Vezilich was living at the same location in 1991 when a wildfire ripped through the neighborhood, killing 25 people and injuring 150 others. It happened suddenly, Vezilich said outside her home. Id gotten back from church and everything was quiet. Suddenly there were helicopters flying overhead saying, evacuate, evacuate.

Vezilich, who rebuilt her house on the same property, was one of the first residents to return to the neighborhood after the fire. Today she makes sure to watch the vegetation on her lot, trimming for the overgrowth and dead weeds that create fire hazards.

Across the street, Vezilichs neighbor Ethan Jones said he wasnt too worried about fires. Jones works with software and moved into the neighborhood well after the 1991 wildfire.

We have two babies so we have a soft go-plan. But we havent really thought of it too much, Jones said.

The new normal

PG&E has a 70,000 square-mile service area, and serves more than a third of the state. The utility declared bankruptcy in January, in part because of potential liabilities from its role in some of the 2017 fires and the Camp fire.

PG&E began practicing preventive shutoffs this year during red flag fire weather conditions high winds and low humidity after investigators found it at fault in two of the deadliest wildfires in Californias history, both within the past two years.

Some of the wildfires started because of trees falling on power lines trees that should have been cleared by PG&E because of their proximity to the lines. In the 2018 Camp fire, which killed 85, the utilitys outdated infrastructure was implicated.

Amid warm temperatures and strong winds, major shutoffs are expected to become a staple in a state gripped by the climate crisis.

I wish we werent in a situation where, in maybe one of the wealthiest jurisdictions in the world, we are turning power off to large swaths of the population every few weeks, Michael Wara, director of the climate and energy policy program at Stanford University, said on Tuesday. But it is better than what weve been through, and I very much hope that we get through this fire season without a repeat of 2017 or 2018.

Steve Anderson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said those anticipating high winds would not be disappointed.

To everyone asking, Wheres the wind? Wheres the wind? Dont worry, the wind is coming, Anderson said. Obviously PG&E doesnt want to cut the power when theres already strong winds. You want to cut the power before it happens.

Gusts of 35-45 mph (56-72 kph) were forecast to sweep from the San Francisco Bay Area to the agricultural Central Valley.

To the south, Southern California Edison was considering shutting off power for nearly 174,000 customers in nine counties as Santa Ana winds were predicted Thursday. San Diego Gas & Electric has notified about 30,000 customers they could lose power in backcountry areas.

Many in the state, including policymakers, complain that the outages shift the cost of prevention to the consumer, including some of the regions most vulnerable.

Daniel Ibarra, right, gives a manually written receipt to a customer, Mark Costales, who paid for lunch in cash, at Murphys Irish Pub & Restaurant, in Sonoma on Wednesday. Photograph: Christopher Chung/AP

We obviously value human life and we will assume that this is necessary to avoid devastating fires and to preserve life, said Libby Schaaf, mayor of Oakland, which is set to be affected by the shutoffs. This is an evolving world where these extreme weather conditions that we see from climate change are happening and we have got to adjust.

But, Schaaf noted, these types of interruptions are not acceptable.

This is a type of interruption to our lives that should not happen, she said. We should have systems that dont require a power outage, particularly for five days.

This puts all the burden on the customer, echoed Mindy Spatt, a spokeswoman for the Utility Reform Network. The customer has to figure out how to remain safe during the outage. If theyre a business, they have to figure out how to deal with whatever losses may occur. Its all on the customer to deal with the inconvenience and the problems created.

She continued: The whole reason that this is supposed to be a regulated industry is that electricity is essential. Its a necessity of modern life.

An eerie anniversary

In Sonoma county, where the Tubbs fire ripped through in 2017, killing 44 and destroying thousands of homes, the shutoff added a layer of surreality to the second anniversary of the devastation.

There were lines down the street for the gas station, said Lisa Frazee, who lost her Santa Rosa home in the fire. The grocery stores were packed, and Office Depot and Staples and all those places that have power packs for phones and computers, it was just a scramble.

Frazee, a teacher who did not lose power in her new home in Windsor, spent the day helping parents whose kids had school canceled. She felt that PG&E had bungled the entire operation, with the website going down because of too much traffic and poor communication. We went to bed last night thinking we werent supposed to have power, and then we woke up having power, she said.

In a region still traumatized from the fires, a poorly handled operation was the last thing residents needed. Frazee was chatting with the parent of a girl who lost her home in the flames, and at the mention of a PG&E map and the wind, the little girl just started trembling, she said.

Smoke continues rises from the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country in Santa Rosa during the Tubbs fire in 2017. Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

I said, Whats going on, honey? And she said, Im really nervous. I dont like wind. The wind made the fire burn my house down, Frazee said.

Janet Leisen, who lost three barns and two houses in the fire, described the whole experience as very weird. Im sitting here at the feed store downtown and its fine, she said. But my house is out. But the coffee shop has power. I just went to the local grocery store and they have power.

Like many in the region, Leisen doesnt care much for PG&E, believing that they havent been about improving their grid or doing anything other than to help their bottom line. She understands why the power shutoffs have to happen but said that the utility could have done more to maintain and improve its infrastructure.

I would have liked it better if they did it before we burned down and they killed 130 people, she said. But if thats what they have to do right now, then thats what they have to do.

Mario Koran contributed reporting



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