In an unprecedented move, Pacific Gas & Electric early Wednesday began shutting off power to about 800,000 customers across Northern California in an attempt to avoid wildfires caused by winds damaging power equipment.
The first power cutoffs, expected to affect 513,000 customers, began shortly after midnight in several counties around Sacramento, including Placer and Yuba, amid strengthening winds and continued to roll out into the early morning hours.
The blackouts will impact 34 counties in Central and Northern California. It would be the biggest power shutdown so far as utilities across the state attempt to reduce wildfire risk due to heavy wind. Utilities malfunctions have been tied to some of the state’s most destructive fires, including last year’s Camp fire, which devastated Paradise, Calif., and the 2017 wine country blazes.
“It is a very blunt way of approaching the situation, but at the same time, there’s an understanding of why it’s being undertaken,” said Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, who noted PG&E’s announcement came on the second anniversary of the 2017 firestorm. “We have vulnerable populations, our elderly and young children. We’re mostly concerned about them.”
The shut-down will be PG&E’s third in the last two months, the utility said. Power was restored within a day during the previous two events, but those were also for much smaller slices of its customer base.
“It is very possible that customers may be affected by a power shut-off even though they are not experiencing extreme weather conditions in their specific location,” the utility said in a statement. “This is because the electric system relies on power lines working together to provide electricity across cities, counties and regions.”
Southern California Edison announced it, too, was considering preventive power outages. The utility said that given the anticipated possibly strong Santa Ana winds, power could be cut off to more than 106,000 customers in parts of eight Southern California counties.
Edison’s possible outage would primarily affect customers in Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside counties. Also under consideration are areas in Ventura County and portions of Kern, Tulare, Inyo and Mono counties.
The power shut-offs have generated debate, with some residents saying they create a whole new set of dangers as they try to watch for news about fires. There has been heightened concern about those with health issues who rely on medical equipment.
Throughout Tuesday, the staff at the Ukiah Senior Center were scrambling to prepare for the planned outage, buying butane canisters at sporting goods stores so they could make coffee and freezing water bottles in case the power was out for days.
Relief came in the form of an email, when city leaders alerted the community just after 3:30 p.m. that PG&E had indicated that Ukiah’s electric system won’t be affected by the planned outages. Local leaders did warn that, because extreme weather is expected, outages could still occur.
“People have been on pins and needles all day because of the uncertainty,” said Diana Clarke, the senior center’s executive director. “They don’t know if they should go out and buy supplies, and especially with seniors, they don’t have a lot of extra money.”