On October 9, 2019, Pacific Gas and Electric started the blackouts.
The beleaguered utility, which oversees 125,000 miles of electrical and transmission lines in the fire-plagued Golden State, warned that an unprecedented 800,000 customers, meaning some 2 million Californians, could go without power for days or longer during the October power shutoff.
It’s a new disaster strategy to avoid, or at least limit, catastrophic, climate change-enhanced fires during the state’s notoriously windy fall season. Hot, dry winds rush through mountain slopes, fan flames over the parched land, and break old, corroded electrical lines, which can light fires. Unless PG&E cuts the power first.
“If the winds pick up, watch out, out go the lights,” Jeff Juliano, a disc jockey on California’s KPIG radio station, mused on-air Wednesday morning.
This precautionary wildfire measure means that many Californians must brace for life without TV, refrigeration, internet, and modern life as we’ve come to know it — until the winds die down and the power is turned on again. The National Weather Service suggests preparing for the blackouts like one would prep for a major quake or disaster: freeze water bottles, make a list of emergency numbers, charge your phone, check on the elderly, and “know how to manually open your garage door.”
“I understand why [PG&E] is being very cautious,” said Emily Grubert, a civil engineer and environmental sociologist at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
While the power shutoff is potentially dangerous for some Californians and profoundly inconvenient for others, Grubert emphasized that disaster mitigation often means weighing adverse options — in this case potential wildfires versus intentional power outages. “Balancing that is always going to be difficult,” she said.
On Wednesday, classes were canceled for the 43,201 students enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley. Major trains, dependent on electricity, were delayed. Wine country residents are shopping for flashlights, generators, and gas. Economic losses could fall between a whopping $65 million and 2.5 billion.
Killing the power may be necessary. But in PG&E’s initial large-scale shutdown effort, it has failed to get the message across of where the power will go out, and for how long (Though the utility has sent out press releases, text messages, and e-mails about the shutoffs).
“A lot of people don’t know what’s going on”
“For me, it feels like it’s coming out of the blue,” said Gabrielle Wong-Parodi, an assistant professor in the Department of Earth System Science at Stanford University.
“It speaks to the fact that a lot of people don’t know what’s going on,” said Leah Stokes, who researches public policy and climate change at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Speaking with a headset while traveling in a car, Stokes noted that she was “about to drive into the power cutoff area.”
These blackouts may indeed avoid sparking fires. We’ll never know. But PG&E’s blackouts aren’t a panacea. They can’t be. Power lines can instigate horrific blazes, but wind-whipped power lines have conclusively lit only four out of the 20 largest wildfires in state history. Other human causes (like the use of a hammer or car fires) and lightning strikes stoked 14 of the Golden State’s worst infernos.
If you rely on electric or battery-dependent medical technologies such as assistive technology, breathing machines, a power wheelchair or scooter & home oxygen or dialysis, it is critical that you have a plan in place for an extended power outage https://t.co/BuXmJjL7id pic.twitter.com/rIqqzjGOaI
— PG&E (@PGE4Me) October 9, 2019
There will always be something or somebody starting a fire around increasingly parched and ready-to-burn California vegetation. Since 1972, the amount of land burned in California has increased fivefold.
“We’re seeing more fire conditions. We’re seeing more warming,” said Stanford’s Wong-Parodi. “We’re likely going to see these types of fire events increasing in the future.”
“Power shutoffs are just part of the way to mitigate this larger problem,” she added.
If large-scale power shutoffs are now California’s reality, then PG&E will almost certainly learn a ton from this shaky rollout.
“I think this public policy is going to need a lot more tweaking,” said Stokes. “This is not a viable strategy.”
“I would hope there would be lots of learning from this event,” added Grubert.
“This is not a viable strategy.”
It’s still unknown how long these outages might last. San Jose’s mayor doesn’t even know. A day? Several days? Oakland’s mayor said the worst-case scenario is currently five days, reports the San Jose Mercury News.
Welcome to California’s new fire regime. This is, of course, an expected consequence of a relentlessly warming climate.
PG&E, who according to KQED News was responsible for 18 wildfires in 2017 and rewarded its investors with $4.5 billion while simultaneously underfunding wildfire mitigation, may have its hands full for decades ahead, at least. Avoiding wildfires is onerous in fire country that’s becoming more prone to fires.