US: Millions play waiting game over major electricity cut

Company warns Californians may be without power for days before the grid is reactivated.

    A gas station marquee and traffic lights remain dark as Pacific Gas and Electric cuts power to more than half a million customers in California, hoping to prevent wildfires [Noah Berger/AP Photo]
    A gas station marquee and traffic lights remain dark as Pacific Gas and Electric cuts power to more than half a million customers in California, hoping to prevent wildfires [Noah Berger/AP Photo]

    Millions of Californians played a waiting game on Thursday as an electric company watched the weather before deciding whether to restore power to an enormous portion of the state blacked out on purpose.

    The state's largest utility pulled the plug to prevent a repeat of the past two years when wind-blown power lines sparked deadly wildfires that destroyed thousands of homes.

    The unpopular move that disrupted daily life - prompted by forecasts calling for dry, gusty weather - came after catastrophic fires sent Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) into bankruptcy and forced it to take more aggressive steps to prevent blazes.

    The blackouts began on Wednesday, hitting more than 500,000 homes and businesses north of San Francisco Bay, in the wine country, the Central Valley and the Sierra Nevada foothills, where a November wildfire blamed on PG&E transmission lines killed 85 people and virtually incinerated the town of Paradise.

    Late on Wednesday night, after a full day of delays, PG&E began cutting power in the Bay Area, excluding the city of San Francisco.

    Overall, about 734,000 customers and as many as two million people could be affected. PG&E has warned they might have to do without power for days after the winds subside because "every inch" of the power system must be inspected by helicopters and thousands of groundworkers and declared safe before the grid is reactivated.

    "It's just kind of scary. It feels worse than Y2K. We don't know how long," Tianna Pasche of Oakland said 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."

    "For me, this is a major inconvenience in my life as a parent but also, if it saves a life, I'm not going to complain about it," she said.

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    Residents of the Oakland Hills, where a wildfire in 1991 killed 25 people and destroyed thousands of homes, spent the morning buying bottled water, getting cash and filling their cars with gas.

    In the northern wine country, most of downtown Sonoma was pitch black when Joseph Pokorski, a retiree, showed up for his morning ritual of drinking coffee, followed by beer and cocktails.

    The Town Square bar was open and lit by lanterns, but coffee was out of the question and only cash was accepted. Pokorski decided to forgo a 30-minute wait for a cup of joe from the bakery next door and move on to beers and a couple of greyhound cocktails of vodka and grapefruit juice.

    "I'm not a coffee freak," Pokorski said. "I can take it or leave. It's no big thing."

    In the El Dorado Hills east of Sacramento, California, Ruth Self and her son were taking the outage in their stride while leaving a Safeway grocery store that had been stripped nearly bare of bottled water and ice.

    Self said she was not upset, given the lives lost nearly a year ago in Paradise, invoking images of people who burned in their cars trying to escape.

    "I just can't imagine," she said. "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."

    There was some good news. PG&E also announced that by reconfiguring its power system, it had restored electricity to 44,000 customers not in areas of high fire risk, and it could bring back power to 60,000 to 80,000 customers in the Humboldt area, where gusty winds had subsided.

    Also because of shifting forecasts, the utility said it was reducing the third phase of its blackout plan, set to begin Thursday, to only about 4,600 customers in Kern County — one-tenth of the original estimate.

    Unsurprisingly, the unprecedented blackouts sparked anger. A customer threw eggs at a PG&E office in Oroville. A PG&E truck was hit by a bullet that shattered a window in Colusa County before Wednesday's outages, although authorities could not immediately say whether it was targeted. PG&E put up barricades around its San Francisco headquarters.

    "We realise and understand the impact and the hardship" from the outages, said Sumeet Singh, head of PG&E's Community Wildfire Safety Program. But he urged people not to take it out on PG&E workers.

    "They have families that live in your communities, they have friends, they are members of your communities," he said. "They're doing this work in the interest of your safety."

    PG&E took drastic action because of hot, dry Diablo winds sweeping into Northern California, said Scott Strenfel, PG&E's principal meteorologist. They were also part of a California-wide weather system that will produce Santa Ana winds in the south in the next day or so, he said.

    "These (weather) events historically are the events that cause the most destructive wildfires in California history," Strenfel said.

    Winds gusting as high as 112 kilometres per hour (70mph) in places were forecast to begin hitting Southern California later on Thursday. Southern California Edison warned that it might cut power to nearly 174,000 customers in nine counties, including Los Angeles and its surrounding areas. San Diego Gas & Electric has notified about 30,000 customers they could lose power in back-country areas.

    While many people said the blackouts were a necessity, others were outraged — the word that Governor Gavin Newsom used in arguing that PG&E should have been working on making its power system sturdier and more weather-proof.

    "They're in bankruptcy due to their terrible management going back decades," Newsom said in San Diego. "They've created these conditions. It was unnecessary."

    Singh said the utility had more than 8,000 employees and contractors who have been clearing brush, inspecting power lines and putting power lines underground.

    But he said the power grid was not built to withstand the changing weather and the previous safety factor "no longer exists".

    Although fire agencies had beefed up their crews because of red-flag conditions of extreme fire danger, very few fires were currently burning in California. Only a tiny fraction of acreage has burned, so far, this year compared with recent years, though no one has attributed that to the power cuts.

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    SOURCE: AP news agency