The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Northern California faces massive power outage as PG&E hedges wildfire risk

More than half a million residents have been left in the dark after power company PG&E made precautionary power cuts to avoid wildfires starting Oct. 9. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

OAKLAND, Calif. — There are no generators for sale here, with all sold out. Plastic gas jugs are in short supply. What there is plenty of, though, is a thin fury directed at one of the nation’s largest utilities after it shut down power to more than half a million customers Wednesday, with further blackouts planned in the hours ahead.

Before dawn, Pacific Gas & Electric flipped the electricity switch off across 20 counties, most of them north of San Francisco, an intentional and highly disruptive hedge against wildfire risk. As California experiences intensifying weather extremes and confronts the sharpening consequences of a changing climate, the power company responsible for starting the deadliest wildfire in state history has undertaken the most extensive planned power outage ever employed.

California’s energy challenge: How — and whether — to save PG&E

Favorable weather in Northern California pushed off a second phase of power outages that had been planned for midday. The stiff, dry winds — known here as Diablos — did not whip up as early as had been forecast, though predictions still called for them to strengthen into the evening. As many as a million households — with more than 2 million people — could eventually be affected by the outage.

“It’s ridiculous, all political,” said Gregg Bowman, a 63-year-old architect, as he shopped in Home Depot here in the minutes before the planned noon shut-off. “This company is so screwed up.”

Bowman lives in Calistoga, a quaint resort town in the hills of Napa Valley, where the Tubbs Fire ravaged tinder-dry wine country two years ago. His power was cut intentionally two weeks ago amid moderate winds and, after he exhausted his gasoline supplies, he lost electricity again just after midnight Wednesday.

Clutching two plastic jugs, the last two in the huge store, Bowman said the weather in Calistoga did not support the shutdown, which he has been told could last five days. One of the jugs was for diesel, even though his generator runs on gasoline.

“I just took what I could,” he said. “And this will only hold enough gas to run my refrigerator for about eight hours — that’s all.”

The shut-off could eventually encompass more than half the state’s 58 counties, much of them in Northern California, where two of the deadliest fires in state history have occurred in the past two years. Heavy winter rains followed by extreme dryness and summer heat have created dangerous amounts of natural fuel across the region, increasing the threat that power lines pose. Winds can bring down lines, sparking wildfires, with strong gusts driving the flames quickly out of control and making them almost impossible to contain.

The crisis economy that emerged Wednesday in stores such as Home Depot belied the larger losses that would result from days without electricity as vintners, ranchers and farmers, small restaurants and corner groceries face millions of dollars in lost business.

“We believe this reflects a stark new reality for California as the state grapples with the impacts of more extreme weather — wildfire, flooding, drought and storms — resulting from climate change,” said Rufus Jeffris, a vice president at the Bay Area Council, a prominent business group.

Holly Ratliff, a single mother of three, fought to stay in the town she grew up in even if it meant that on some nights she did not know where she would sleep. (Video: The Washington Post)

PG&E was found responsible for igniting one of those two disastrous recent fires, the blaze that tore through Paradise last year, killing 85 people and turning 14,000 homes to ash. The company has since filed for bankruptcy in the face of billions of dollars in liability claims.

Out of the ashes, schools in fire-ravaged Paradise, Calif., struggle to rebuild

It was among the last of the state’s utilities to employ “public safety power shut-offs,” as the planned outages are known. Power companies here have the right to shut off electricity when wind, temperatures and humidity align to create high-risk fire conditions. Such decisions are reviewed by the state Public Utilities Commission.

“We know how much our customers rely on electric service and the impacts these events can have on them, their families, businesses, and communities — including the use of medical equipment and refrigeration,” PG&E wrote in a report to the commission last month on its use of power shut-offs. “We will only consider proactively turning off power when the benefits of de-energization outweigh potential public safety risks.”

But there also is an element of political negotiation in the shut-off, which in this case was explained by PG&E as the result of predicted high winds that have been the driving force behind the state’s worst fires.

PG&E, the nation’s biggest utility company, files for bankruptcy after California wildfires

Forecasts Wednesday called for gusts as high as 55 mph, which puzzled many here during a cool, clear afternoon when the palms and eucalyptus remained still and flags lay limp on their poles.

“I’m outraged because it didn’t have to happen,” Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said Wednesday during a news conference in San Diego. “They’re in bankruptcy due to their terrible management going back decades. They’ve created these conditions; it was unnecessary.”

In recent years, PG&E has sought to loosen California’s liability standards, which hold utilities responsible for any damage that results from fires the company’s equipment start, regardless of whether the company is found negligent. The principle, known as “inverse condemnation,” is among the strictest in the nation.

Despite heavy lobbying by utilities, California lawmakers had refused to change that standard in recent legislative sessions. But this year lawmakers loosened it slightly to allow a lower liability threshold for utilities that first complete billions of dollars in safety improvements to power lines, transformers and other equipment.

“When the power goes out, it’s fun to sit around and fantasize about the many ways you will oppose any legislation or initiatives that are favorable towards” PG&E, tweeted John Holland, a Berkeley resident and partner in a technology services company, whose telecommuting employees cannot work when electricity is shut off.

PG&E has 16 million customers, the majority of them in Northern California. The company has begun a campaign of television advertising concerning fire safety. The spots include animated illustrations of how to create “defensible spaces” around homes, jargon that has crept into California’s daily conversation.

Across the state, neighborhoods organize meetings to gather information about which residents would need extra help during intentional power shut-offs, who has generators and whose medical issues would be exacerbated in a blackout.

Utilities try to give a 48-hour warning before a planned power outage, allowing customers some time to prepare for what could be a long time without electricity.

The extent of this outage, the utility has warned, could mean that it will take days to restore power service across the affected area once the winds have calmed and temperatures drop. Hundreds of miles of power lines must be checked, with transformers and other equipment tested, before turning the power back on, lest downed wires and damaged equipment cause the fires the company has sought to avoid.

Even short-lived outages have proved onerous — and expensive — for state residents. In rural California, recent power shut-offs have led to a lack of refrigeration and the spoilage of butchered meat and harvested grapes and avocados.

Emergency generators are costly to buy and to run, with the price of gasoline exceeding $4 per gallon. Generators also pose a fire risk of their own.

Here in Oakland, a city where the hills burned in 1991, killing 25 people and destroying more than 2,800 homes, Wednesday was cool, dry and windless. People waited — and waited — for the announced shut-off.

Phones buzzed with updates, missed deadlines. Employees planned evening commutes around the possibility of dark traffic signals and gridlock.

Some spent much of the day in quiet anxiety, the dire weather predictions reminding them of the grim fall weeks that befell California during the Camp and Tubbs fires.

Tina Hubbard lives in the no-stoplight town of Grizzly Flats, tucked in the Sierra and cut by canyons. Bears, mountain lions and deer are common pedestrians downtown, and when the winds rise over the ridges, PG&E often cuts the power.

She works with a group of clinics, helping them with digital medical records. When the power disappears, as it did Wednesday, so does her ability to work. “I live on my computer,” she said.

Hubbard skipped grocery shopping this week, predicting that her fridge would not be working for days. “Single-serving soup, nothing perishable, that’s how we’re doing it now,” she said, grateful for her propane stove.

She lives with her husband, a mail carrier, and the couple’s generator is hooked up to power the kitchen and the master bedroom only. But it is still used sparingly. “Gas prices with a gas generator?” she said. “It gets really expensive really quickly.”

It will be days before her power returns, even though the wind in El Dorado County remained so still that Hubbard said “it doesn’t even move my hair.” The power lines to Grizzly Flats are long, run up hills and through canyons, and will take time to inspect before carrying a current again.

“It always takes them a long time to get to us,” Hubbard said.