The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After power is restored to large swath of California, PG&E claims shut-off prevented wildfires

Smoke from the Saddleridge Fire hangs above power lines as the sun rises in Newhall, Calif., on Oct. 11. (Noah Berger/AP)

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — The utility behind last week’s intentional power shut-off across Northern and Central California has restored electricity to all of its customers as shifts in weather have lessened the likelihood its equipment will spark wildfires.

Pacific Gas & Electric, the state’s largest utility, shut down power in stages last week to nearly 1 million customers in a ring around the Bay Area, from wine country to near the Oregon border, and as far east as several Sierra Nevada counties.

It was the largest planned power outage of its kind in state history. It will not be the last.

While the utility says the outage might have prevented wildfires in several northern counties — and the company showed photos of downed power lines as evidence — it certainly caused millions of dollars in damage to closed businesses, generator-less households and others in places where the weather never lived up to the predicted conditions.

Residents of Porter Ranch, Calif. had minutes to leave their homes in the middle of the night as the wind-whipped Saddleridge Fire tore through the canyons. (Video: Jacob Hurwitz-Goodman/The Washington Post)

The tactic is designed to minimize fire risk in a state where increasingly sudden, severe changes in the weather have intensified the frequency of wildfire damage. But the outage infuriated many California residents and politicians, including Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), who on Monday called on state regulators to investigate the shut-off.

In a letter to the California Public Utilities Commission, Newsom wrote that the “scope and duration of this outage was unacceptable.” He said a comprehensive review is “critical so we can take concrete and expedited steps to both limit and focus the use of [intentional outages] as a wildfire prevention tool in the future.”

“It was the direct result of decades of PG&E prioritizing profit over public safety,” Newsom wrote. “It was clear from the start that PG&E implemented this extraordinary measure with astounding neglect and lack of preparation.”

As much of Northern California contended with the outage, warm, dry winds whipped through Los Angeles, sparking up two wildfires that forced tens of thousands of residents to evacuate homes. Those fires have been blamed for three deaths.

The winds, known as Santa Anas, died down over the weekend, giving firefighters in northern Los Angeles and Riverside counties a chance to contain the fires. As of Monday, the evacuation orders for those potentially in the path of the Saddleridge and Sandalwood fires had been lifted and the fires mostly contained.

Southern California Edison, the utility that serves northern Los Angeles County, shut down power to 13,000 customers before the fires began amid stiffening winds. But it did not do so in Sylmar, a town in the county’s far north that has burned before, where residents reported seeing flames near an Edison electricity transmission tower along Saddle Ridge Road.

The Saddleridge Fire has destroyed 35 homes and burned more than 8,000 acres in the northern San Fernando Valley, near the Ventura County border. Edison told the Los Angeles Times it will cooperate with the investigation into the fire’s cause.

In recent years, California’s fall wildfire season has extended to much of the year with wet winters and springs followed quickly by hot, dry summers, which parch the natural fuel that flourished with the rains. High winds common this time of year can both knock down power lines, which start fires, and drive the flames across the landscape at great speeds.

Listen on Post Reports: Questions remain after intentional blackout

State laws hold utilities “strictly liable” when their equipment starts fires and causes damage, even if there is no negligence. Utility companies have spent heavily in the past two years lobbying state lawmakers unsuccessfully to loosen the liability rule, among the nation’s strictest.

Newsom and other state leaders have expressed little sympathy for PG&E since the shutdown, which potentially complicated its push for relief. In his Monday letter to the commission, Newsom said he would be calling on PG&E to help offset the economic loss by issuing a billing credit of $100 to residential customers and $250 to small businesses affected by the shutdown.

PG&E filed for bankruptcy protection earlier this year as it faced more than $20 billion in liability claims from recent fires, including the state’s most deadly, which last November burned through the town of Paradise, killing 85 people and destroying 14,000 homes.

The utility posted a notice Monday reminding potential plaintiffs that they have until Oct. 21 to file a claim in bankruptcy court against the company.