Some California residents are seeing their power restored after a utility shut off electricity for nearly 800,000 customers in an effort to avoid sparking a wildfire.
Approximately 126,000 customers had power by early Thursday morning, Pacific Gas & Electric said in a statement. But that left about 600,000 still without electricity.
The company intentionally cut power to customers Wednesday to help prevent wildfires that could be caused by high winds downing live power equipment — a tactic it warned residents about in February.
PG&E has been criticized in recent years for the role its equipment played in a series of catastrophic blazes across the state, including last year’s deadly Camp Fire.
But the outages are a huge inconvenience for residents and business owners like restaurant owner Linda Lokey, who told CNN affiliate KTXL that she’s scrambling to salvage the meat left in her freezers after she lost all the beer she’d stored in tin barrels.
“We’ve been here all night,” Lokey told KTXL. “If we didn’t get the generator, I don’t know what we’d be doing right now.”
Strong winds across arid Northern California could fuel destructive wildfires, said Scott Strenfel, PG&E’s meteorologist. Early Thursday morning, peak wind gusts of more than 70 mph were recorded in some areas where power had been shut off, the utility company said.
“We faced a choice between hardship or safety, and we chose safety,” said Michael Lewis, senior vice president of PG&E’s electric operations. “We deeply apologize for the inconvenience and the hardship, but we stand by the decision because the safety of our customers and communities must come first.”
Another 4,000 customers were expected to lose power later Thursday morning, PG&E said.
Devastating for businesses
Lokey and her family operate a BBQ restaurant in downtown Lincoln, north of Sacramento, and they heaped ice on stored food to save whatever they could. “For mom and pops like us and all the businesses here, this can be very devastating and catastrophic for our business to recover from,” she said.
Her co-owner chimed in.
“They’re going to put us out of business basically,” Monty Lokey said. “We have a 14,000-square-foot restaurant. We’re losing tens of thousands of dollars in food.”
Patty Storer, who owns a small bakery and café across from the restaurant, says the days of outages will be a major financial loss.
“Probably losing $1,200 today, which is a hit for a small business, and it’s going to take a lot of staff and more money to get it back up and running because we have to remake everything,” she told KTXL.
The power shutoff could last days, officials said. The blackout region stretches from south of San Jose to areas north of Eureka.
Ultimately, if the power is off for two days, it could cost up to $2.6 billion, according to Michael Wara, the director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at Stanford University’s Woods Institute.
“This is very disruptive to people’s lives and businesses to not have electric power,” Wara told CNN. “An economy as large as California’s, when you black out a significant fraction of the state, there are going to be large economic impacts.”
Tod Pickett, a 58-year-old small business owner in Placerville, criticized the state and PG&E, comparing the current situation to that of a third-world country.
“When the wind blows we have to turn the power off,” Pickett said. “It’s crazy.”
“It’s costing this state billions in lost revenue and people are losing food, people are losing revenue for not being able to work,” he said. “It’s devastating.”
PG&E worker’s vehicle shot at, police say
In a news conference Wednesday evening, PG&E officials urged the public to consider the safety of its workers.
Sumeet Singh, the vice president of PG&E’s Community Wildfire Safety Program, didn’t address any incident in particular. But the California Highway Patrol had earlier said one worker’s marked PG&E vehicle was struck by a bullet Tuesday evening, shattering the passenger side window. The driver was uninjured, police said. The utility’s customer service center in Oroville was also egged, the company said.
“Our employees and contractors, they have families that live in your communities, they have friends, they are members of your communities,” Singh said. “So let’s just ensure their safety as well as they are doing this work in the interest of your safety.”
The wind is expected to subside Friday, according to Strenfel, the meteorologist. PG&E crews will then examine their system for damage and begin to restore power for customers, which could take several days.
The company has about 6,300 personnel ready to begin inspections, Singh said.
“We very much understand the inconvenience and difficulties such a power outage would cause and we do not take or make this decision lightly,” he said.
“This decision … was really focused on ensuring that we’re continuing to maintain the safety of our customers and our communities.”
Residents slam utility
Just last month, PG&E announced it had reached an $11 billion settlement with insurance companies for claims stemming from the devastating 2017 and 2018 wildfires in Northern California.
In June, the utility paid $1 billion in damages to local governments for blazes linked to its power lines, poles and other equipment.
The company warned earlier this year it could proactively cut power more often during risky weather conditions as a means of preventing wildfires caused by high winds downing live power equipment.
Critics say the plan lets PG&E get away with inconveniencing its customers and costing businesses instead of upgrading its infrastructure to prevent fires.
“I’m angry at PG&E,” said Blair Roman, who’s out of power in Mill Valley. “Most of my friends are angry as well.”
“They didn’t do what they were supposed to do and keep up with the lines and the power,” Roman said. “Their answer to everything is to just shut it off so we can’t get blamed for it. It’s a major inconvenience, it’s going to cost companies billions of dollars. And it all could have been avoided.”
State Sen. Jim Nielsen, whose district includes Paradise, where 85 died in last year’s Camp Fire, said the power shutoff is unacceptable.
“PG&E’s decision to protect itself from liability at the expense of hardworking Californians will not be tolerated. This disregards people’s livelihoods. We depend on electricity to live and earn a living,” he said.
San Jose officials also say PG&E should improve its equipment instead of imposing outages.
The National Weather Service has warned of strong winds and low humidity running over dry vegetation in the region, describing it as a recipe for explosive fire growth.