/Power Outage in California Affects Millions as PG&E Tries to Avoid Wildfire

Power Outage in California Affects Millions as PG&E Tries to Avoid Wildfire


PG&E Corp.

began cutting power to about 800,000 households and businesses across California Wednesday in an unprecedented move to lower the threat of wildfires in the face of the kind of windstorm that previously fueled deadly infernos and propelled the utility into bankruptcy court.

The company said it began implementing the first phase of what it calls public-safety power shut-offs shortly after midnight, affecting about 513,000 customers in 22 counties stretching from Marin, Sonoma and Napa, north of San Francisco, to the Sierra Nevada foothills.

PG&E said the second phase of the shut-off was set to begin at noon for about 234,000 customers in seven more counties, including cities such as Oakland, Berkeley and San Jose. A third phase was being considered for 42,000 customers in Central California, the company said.

PG&E customers without power, as of 1:30 p.m. local time Wednesday

With multiple people in many households, the blackouts could affect millions of people. Michael Wara, head of the climate and energy-policy program at Stanford University’s Woods Institute, estimated that a two-day shut-off affecting 800,000 of PG&E’s residential and commercial customers could cost between $65 million and $2.5 billion, depending on how many businesses lose power. If the outages predominantly affect residences, he anticipates fewer total losses.

PG&E officials said late Tuesday they anticipated the winds to slow by midday Thursday, but warned it could take another three days or longer to fully restore power due to the time needed to inspect all the lines affected by the shut-off.

“We very much understand the inconvenience and the difficulty such a power outage would cause,” said

Sumeet Singh,

vice president of PG&E’s community wildfire safety program. “We do not take or make this decision lightly.”

The move came after the utility had warned for days it planned to cut power to hundreds of thousands of residences and businesses as strong, dry winds were forecast to hit Northern California, increasing the risk that its equipment could start fires. The winds remained largely calm Wednesday morning, but were forecast to begin gusting later in the day.

“Ironically, there is no wind here—none,” Dena Agliolo, 57, said by cellphone from her powerless home in the Sonoma County town of Glen Ellen. “To do this as a precautionary thing, I get that. But to have the effect be you will be out of power for days and potentially a week is ridiculous.”

There were reports of residences losing power in cities not on official shutdown maps, including in Pacifica, just south of San Francisco. PG&E officials said they were not immediately aware of that.

PG&E dramatically expanded the use of public-safety power shut-offs earlier this year in a bid to prevent its power lines from igniting dry brush on windy days. Its equipment sparked 19 major wildfires in 2017 and 2018 that collectively killed more than 100 people and destroyed thousands of homes.

The company sought bankruptcy protection in January, citing more than $30 billion in potential fire-related liability costs.

Vulnerabilities in PG&E’s infrastructure combined with the impact of climate change contributed to hundreds of wildfires in California, including the deadly Camp Fire in 2018. Here’s a look at upgrades to the utility giant’s power grid that might have prevented these blazes. Photo: Reuters

At Ace Hardware in Kensington, near Berkeley, owner Brian Odell has a backup generator in case the power goes out. He saw a run on supplies like batteries, flashlights and coolers.

But many others have no generators and faced major disruption. Kathleen and Rob Lunbeck have two families from Canada arriving Thursday for a three-day vacation at a farmhouse they rent in Sonoma County that currently lacks power for lights or to run well water. The renters—four adults and seven young children—had nonrefundable plane tickets, so Ms. Lunbeck has rounded up jugs of water, extra propane for an outdoor stove and giant chests of ice.

“I’m a Boy Scout mom,” said Ms. Lunbeck, 50, of San Francisco, who added that she and her husband will have to give a big rent break for the inconveniences on top of the $400 they have already spent on extra supplies.

PG&E: Full Coverage


Photo Illustration by John Kuczala; iStockphoto

Many schools were closed, with classes canceled at the University of California, Berkeley and Sonoma State University as well as at more than a dozen K-12 school districts in the San Francisco Bay Area.

In Paradise, Calif., which was devastated by the Camp Fire last year, school officials said they canceled classes for Wednesday and Thursday in part because fire alarms will only work for 24 hours and buses only had enough fuel to pick up students in the morning.

Paradise resident Kyla Awalt said Wednesday’s power shut-off was just the latest of several such outages PG&E has imposed in the past year.

“It’s frustrating because it feels like we’ve been put through the wringer with them already because of all of our losses,” she said.

Area airports and transit systems weren’t expected to be affected by the shutdown, but Napa County officials warned that many traffic lights weren’t working Wednesday morning. State highway crews were working to restore the lights.

In Santa Rosa, Calif., Rabbi Mendel Wolvovsky, of Sonoma County Chabad Jewish Center, went to Home Depot in search of lamps and flashlights to help his synagogue observe Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year for Jews, which began on Tuesday night. He didn’t find much.

“Of course the flashlight aisle was mobbed,” he said. “A lot of shelves were empty.” Mr. Wolvovsky was able to track down about a dozen LED battery-powered lamps, which he hoped would be enough to last through the day Wednesday if the congregation’s power went out.

Write to Jim Carlton at jim.carlton@wsj.com and Katherine Blunt at Katherine.Blunt@wsj.com

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