Calif. roiled by ou­tages as util­ity aims to avert blazes

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY SCOTT WIL­SON

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.

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 pre

dic­tions 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.

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.

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 shut­offs. “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 shut­off, 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.

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.

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.

NOAH BERGER/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Ar­mando Espinoza de­liv­ers pa­per prod­ucts Wed­nes­day to a cafe in Sonoma, Calif., amid a planned out­age by Pa­cific Gas & Elec­tric as the util­ity tries to pre­vent wild­fires in the north­ern part of the state.

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