SAN JOSE, Calif. (CN) – San Jose, Northern California’s largest city, had 68 inoperable traffic signals during the Thursday morning commute. It snarled traffic worse than usual, and San Jose’s usual is already terrible.
The traffic nightmare was just one of the impacts of a major power outage undertaken voluntarily by Pacific Gas & Electric, the largest utility in California. PG&E shut off power to nearly 800,000 customers out of fear that high winds combined with dry vegetation and low humidity could facilitate another catastrophic wildfire.
The conditions mirrored November 2018, when the Camp Fire razed the town of Paradise, killing 85 and destroying thousands of houses and businesses.
Two years ago, the city of Santa Rosa saw entire neighborhoods burned to the ground as a result of dry windy weather.
While San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo understands that climate change and other factors are making such fires more probable and more dangerous, he insisted PG&E must find other solutions than shutting off power for days at a time.
“It’s not the shutdown that’s most worrisome, but the length of time,” he said. “What becomes a minor inconvenience for a few hours becomes a major public health hazard when extended for a few days.”
Many residents have been told they could be without power for five days. Apart from keeping food cold in refrigerators and freezers, many people depend on electricity for medical devices for their survival.
San Jose has set up stations where such people can access the power they need, but Liccardo said PG&E should do more to accommodate such customers.
“The cost should be borne by PG&E,” said Liccardo.
Outrage at the investor-owned utility was rampant throughout Northern California.
“Petaluma only had winds of 4 mph and I’m still without power, with twin newborn babies,” said Laruen Kumar, a resident who lives near where the Tubbs Fire burned two years ago. “I understand it would be necessary if we had high winds, but we didn’t.”
It was a common complaint.
In Santa Cruz, residents wondered why much of the town went without power on Thursday when wind speeds seemed rather subdued compared to most days for the coastal town.
The National Weather Service maintained high wind events are still possible for much of Northern California into Thursday evening, but for many municipalities the predicted wind events never materialized.
However, some areas did receive hurricane-force winds with gusts above 70 miles per hour. There have also been some fires, including a 500-acre fire kicked up by Santa Ana winds that evacuations in Riverside County. The Sandlewood Fire is 0% contained.
Many customers in Southern California – which is outside PG&E’s service area – have lost power as well.
Liccardo said these type of power outages could “be with us for many years to come.”
“We need to address the effects of climate change,” he said. “They are quite real and we felt them today.”
On Thursday afternoon, PG&E said about 600,000 customers remained without power, while electricity had been restored for 126,000 customers. Safety inspections of transmission lines have begun in counties where 270,700 people are without power, a first step in turning the power back on.