‘People Are Freaking Out.’ Thousands of Californians Left Powerless

October 11, 2019

As hundreds of thousands of Californians grapple with a power shutoff intended to reduce the risk of wildfires, people affected by the outages say that their communities are racked by anxiety and frustration about the disruption — as well as fear that the complications associated with the outages outweigh the intended benefits.

“People are freaking out around here,” says Jeffery Stackhouse, a Livestock and Natural Resource Advisor from Fortuna, Calif who spoke with TIME along with his colleague, Lenya Quinn-Davidson, the area fire advisor with UC Cooperative Extension in Humboldt County, Calif., and director of the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council. They said the outages have fundamentally disrupted life in their community: Schools have closed, some businesses can’t run credit cards, people have lined up outside of gas stations to try and get fuel, and cars have been stuck in traffic jams as a result of traffic light outages.

Meteorologist Rob Calmark of local news channel ABC10 wrote on Twitter Thursday morning that there were strong winds in some areas, and that supplies such as water, flashlights and generators seemed to be running low. “In short…it’s ongoing…people are on edge…every stoplight is a four way stop with traffic issues…people have NO idea when power is coming back…it’s a big deal that is getting bigger today,” Calmark wrote.

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California: north and south battle wildfires as preventive shutoffs hit millions

A mobile home community in southern California fell victim to a rapidly spreading wildfire on Thursday, as millions of people in the state were left without power amid a high fire threat.

The fire in the Calimesa area of Riverside county near Los Angeles was one of several blazes statewide fed by hot, dry winds, officials said.

The fire quickly destroyed about two dozen homes, as crews with air support scrambled to contain it. A county fire department statement reported “numerous medical emergencies” at Villa Calimesa mobile home park, but there were few further details.

Authorities say the blaze was sparked when a trash truck dumped a load of burning garbage along a road. The area was not listed among the latest communities where utility companies has cut power in an effort to prevent wildfires caused by windblown wires.

Utility companies in northern and southern California had shut off power to nearly 2m people starting Wednesday, amid fears that high the high winds in the forecast could bring down power lines and spark deadly wildfires.

Unprecedented shutoffs in northern California

Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) started turning out the lights over a large section of northern and central California on Wednesday, in outages that were unprecedented in scope

The deliberate outages by PG&E in northern California forced schools and businesses to close and otherwise disrupted life for many people, bringing criticism on the company from the governor and ordinary customers alike.

Power was out for many customers in the San Francisco Bay area as well as wine country north of San Francisco, which was hit hard by wildfires in 2017 and the region north of Sacramento devastated by the November 2018 Camp fire. That included parts of the agricultural Central Valley and the Sierra Nevada foothills – where the Camp fire, blamed on PG&E transmission lines, killed 85 and virtually incinerated the town of Paradise. The city of San Francisco was not in the shutoff zone.

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California’s huge, humiliating power outages

California has always prided itself on being a high-tech pioneer. One exception? Power distribution.

With Pacific Gas & Electric Co. expected to cut electricity to 800,000 customers this week, the state is confronting its reliance on a transmission network that predates climate change, solar panels and lithium-ion batteries, depending instead on electric lines strung over thousands of miles on vulnerable wooden poles.

Until that changes, experts say, utility executives are sure to cut electrical service to large sections of the state during high winds, rather than risk downed lines and transformers like those that have sparked deadly wildfires over the last two years.

Utility operators historically built power grids — with massive electrical plants fired by fossil fuels and transmission lines that stretched for hundreds of miles — to provide the cheapest possible electricity. They weren’t concerned about air pollution and global warming, or the more immediate threat from wildfires, said Michael Wara, director of Stanford University’s climate and energy policy program.

“Society has been delivering electricity the same way for 130 years — exposed lines on wood poles over dry grass,” said David Rabbitt, a county supervisor in Sonoma County, one of the areas hit by the massive blackout. “I think we know more now, certainly, and it’s time to actually move on with making the investments going forward.”

Will the current outages be a pivotal moment in transforming California’s power grid? If so, the transition will likely include Californians generating power closer to their homes via solar panels and wind generators. It will also include communities building microgrids, distinct power systems that can operate independent of massive utilities like PG&E, a behemoth that serves 16 million people spread across 70,000 square miles of Central and Northern California.

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