An unprecedented mass shut down of electricity in the United States state of California has entered its second day, leaving 1.5 million people without power, in what the state’s biggest utility provider has described as a needed measure to prevent its equipment from sparking wildfires.
The deliberate outages by Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) forced schools and businesses to close and otherwise disrupted life for many people, bringing criticism down on the company from the governor and ordinary customers alike.
PG&E cast the blackouts as a matter of public safety, aimed at preventing the kind of blazes that have killed scores of people over the past couple of years, destroyed thousands of homes, and run up tens of billions of dollars in claims that drove the utility into bankruptcy.
The measures have been portrayed as a glimpse of the future in California, as climate change contributes to more ferocious blazes and longer fire seasons. But officials have also slammed PG&E as being partially responsible, with Governor Gavin Newsom saying “decades” of mismanagement have prevented needed upgrades and weatherproofing.
“They’ve created these conditions,” the governor said. “It was unnecessary.”
PG&E warned that customers might have to do without power for days as they waited for heavy winds to subside. The company said “every inch” of the system must be inspected by helicopters and thousands of workers on the ground and declared safe before the grid is reactivated.
“It’s just kind of scary,” Tianna Pasche of Oakland told the Associated Press before her area was powered down. “My two kids, their school situation keeps moving every second. It’s not clear if we need to pack for a week and go out of town or what to do. So I’m just trying to make sure we have water, food, charging stations and gas.”
But she added: “If it saves a life, I’m not going to complain about it.”
In advance of the outages, which were announced earlier this week, Californians rushed to stock up on flashlights, batteries, bottled water, ice and coolers, took money out of ATMs and filled their petrol tanks.
The University of California, Berkeley cancelled classes for a second day on Thursday because the campus had no electricity. The city of Oakland closed several schools.
The company had previously said it would be shutting off power in parts of 34 northern, central and coastal California counties to reduce the chance of fierce winds knocking down or toppling trees into powerlines during a siege of hot, dry, gusty weather – including the strongest winds in two years.
Gusts of 56 to 72kph (35-45 mph) were forecast to sweep from the San Francisco Bay area to the agricultural Central Valley. Particularly at risk were the Sierra Nevada foothills, where a November 2018 wildfire, blamed on PG&E transmission lines, killed 85 people and virtually incinerated the town of Paradise.
In the El Dorado Hills east of Sacramento, Ruth Self and her son left a Safeway supermarket that had been stripped nearly bare of bottled water and ice.
Self said she was not upset by the outages, given the lives lost in Paradise, where people were burned in their cars trying to escape.
“I just can’t imagine,” she told the Associated Press. “Hopefully [the outages] are only for a couple days. I think it’s more of a positive than a negative. Ask me again on Friday night when I haven’t had a shower in two days; when I’ve had to spend two days playing card games.”
Faced with customer anger, PG&E put up barricades around its San Francisco headquarters. A customer threw eggs at a PG&E office in the town of Oroville. A PG&E truck was also hit by a bullet in the aftermath of the blackouts, but authorities could not immediately say whether it was targeted.
Democratic presidential hopefuls, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, weighed in on the situation on Twitter, saying it underscored the need for revamped, clean energy grids.
“Shutting off power will be enormously costly to local economies and dangerous for vulnerable populations. This is not a solution to the climate crisis,” Warren wrote.
Sanders, for his part, took aim at “corporate greed” that “threatened the health and safety of Californians”.
The south of California may also face outages in coming days, with the Southern California Edison provider warning that it might cut power to nearly 174,000 customers in nine counties, including Los Angeles. San Diego Gas & Electric has also notified about 30,000 customers they could lose electricity in backcountry areas.