(CN) – The largest utility in the state of California began cutting off power to large swaths of its customer base Wednesday in a pre-emptive blackout that could affect as many as 800,000 Northern California residents over the next five days.
Eager to avoid a repeat of the 2018 Camp Fire – which killed 85 people, destroyed $16 billion worth of property and forced the investor-owned utility into bankruptcy – Pacific Gas & Electric began shutting down parts of its electricity grid at midnight Wednesday due to the dangerous combination of high winds and low humidity.
The outage affects over 30 counties, many of which are in the areas ravaged by wildfires. The outage has prompted long lines at gas stations and grocery stores as residents attempt to stock up on fuel for backup generators and supplies.
PG&E said the outage could last anywhere from one to five days. The news prompted a wealth of outrage in affected communities and throughout California.
“PG&E is a dysfunctional bankrupt utility company,” said Ron Sampson, a resident of Nevada County in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. “They are unable to provide safe reliable power as their power grid infrastructure is so outdated that it would cost billions of dollars to upgrade.”
Nevada County was one of several rural counties hit with overnight blackouts, where entire city blocks and traffic lights went dark, creating hazardous conditions for drivers and pedestrians heading to work in the early morning hours.
Governor Gavin Newsom said he understands the outrage but urged compliance with the program given the weather conditions.
“While the frustration that Californians feel as they deal with the impacts of these power outages is warranted, the purpose of utilities across our state conducting PSPS [public safety power shutoff] is to protect communities against the real threat of wildfires due to existing weather conditions,” Newsom said in a statement Wednesday morning.
San Jose stands to be the most populated area affected by the shutdown planned for noon. While the downtown corridor looks like it will remain powered, many residents who live near the wildland interface on the outskirts of town face will likely see their power shut off.
Placer and Nevada counties will have the most customers affected by the outages, about 90,000 residents.
Daniel Swain, a climate scientist, said the power outage may be necessary in the short term, particularly as current weather conditions render wildfire susceptibility acute. But he said better, more long-term solutions will have to be formulated.
“The power outage is a necessary bad idea in the short term,” Swain said. “It has a high likelihood of preventing additional catastrophes like in Santa Rosa and Paradise, but shifts costs from utilities to communities in highly inequitable way and creates new fire risks.”
The National Weather Service has predicted sustained winds of 15-20 mph across most of Northern California, with gusts as high as 40 mph. The high wind event combined with dry conditions and low humidity led officials to declare a red-flag warning that figures to persist into Thursday.
PG&E said it would de-energize their power lines in certain areas out of concern high winds could fling branches and other debris into the lines, causing a spark that could rapidly escalate into a fast-moving wildfire – the scenario that caused the Camp Fire to start in November 2018.
The Camp Fire is the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in modern state history, and it forced PG&E into bankruptcy while the utility figures out how to compensate victims who lost homes and loved ones while retaining enough capital to perform the necessary fixes to its electrical grid.
Tuesday marked the two-year anniversary of the Tubbs Fire, which ripped through parts of Santa Rosa, killing 22 people and causing billions of dollars in damage. That fire also started due the malfunctioning of electrical equipment, but Cal Fire determined the equipment was owned and operated by a private company, not PG&E.
The counties where power was shut off overnight include Amador, Butte, Colusa, El Dorado, Glenn, Humboldt, Lake, Marin, Napa, Nevada, Plumas, Shasta, Sierra, Solano, Sonoma, Tehema, Trinity, Yolo, Yuba and Placer.
On Wednesday, the power outage extended to Bay Area counties, including Alameda, Contra Costa, Santa Clara, San Mateo and Santa Cruz.
Several school districts shuttered classrooms, including the schools in the Napa Unified School District, the Oakland Unified School District and the San Jose Unified School District.
The University of California, Berkeley, canceled classes on Wednesday.