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Confusion Reigns as California Utility Cuts Power in 34 Counties to Reduce Wildfire Risk

California is getting a close-up look at the challenge of trying to prevent severe climate emergencies, and the costs of relying on a “feeble” power utility to adapt on the fly, after Pacific Gas & Electric took 800,000 to a million electricity accounts offline Wednesday in a bid to avert another season of devastating wildfires.

The shutdown, affecting electricity users in parts of 34 counties, was “a preventative strategy in the face of escalating wildfire threats in the state. Less than a month ago, the California energy company agreed to a US$11-billion settlement in its most recent case litigating its role in recent wildfires,” Mother Jones reports.

“Dry, windy weather expected throughout Northern California prompted the outages, which could last up to five days in some places and affect up to 1.8 million people,” the Bay Area-based publication adds. “Forecasts predict winds up to 70 miles (112.5 kilometres) per hour this week, in addition to warm temperatures and low humidity, which creates ideal conditions for wildfires. Last year, the Camp Fire devastated Paradise, a rural community north of Sacramento, killing 86 people, destroying 14,000 homes, and causing $16.5 billion in losses. Victims and insurance companies sued PG&E for damages and wrongful death after its power lines allegedly sparked fires in 2017 and 2018. In January, the company filed for bankruptcy.”

Mother Jones notes that climate change “is a major contributing factor to larger, longer-lasting fires. California had more fire damage last year than any other state. A recent study found the area burned annually by forest fires between 1972 and 2018 has increased by five-fold in California, much of which can be attributed to global warming.”

But connecting those dots doesn’t guarantee a trouble-free solution. “Extended periods of time without electricity pose a particular danger to vulnerable populations like children, seniors, low-income people, and those with health issues,” writes Mother Jones Fellow Marisa Endicott. “To mitigate the negative impacts, PG&E announced it will open community resource centres in 26 counties Wednesday morning with bathrooms, water, air conditioning, and charging stations. But concerned customers struggled to access PG&E’s updates because of a flood of traffic to their website.”

Wildfire Today is out with a front-line take on what it means when an electric utility suddenly goes AWOL—even when the outage has been discussed, and is intended to hold off an even greater calamity. In fact, with emergency response capacity impaired, it’s a gamble that that calamity won’t happen. Editor Bill Gabbert points out that the utility’s action affects 800,000 addresses, not individuals. And it’s about much more than not being able to turn on a tea kettle (more even than having nowhere to plug in a device!).

“The indirect effects of having no electricity expand to a much larger population when you consider traffic lights not working, tunnels on highways being shut down, plus the closure of gas stations, schools, and businesses,” Gabbert writes. “At some point, cellular telephone towers and infrastructure may exhaust their emergency power supply systems, not to mention the batteries in the public’s cell phones.”

And in an emergency, “firefighters’ communications could be hampered by the disabling of their radio repeaters on mountaintops. Notifying residents of approaching fires and conducting evacuations in order to save lives could be challenging.”

Gabbert’s post includes a series of tweets by ABC10 meteorologist Rob Callmark in Sacramento, recounting the moment and the potential risks from the ground up. (Callmark gave Gabbert permission to cite the whole sequence, so click through to read it all.)

“So here is what’s happening on the ground in California for the fire weather story. It’s genuinely freaking everybody out. If we get ZERO fires out of this (small miracle), the power shut off will be remembered for a long time,” Callmark writes.

“Despite the pretty large media effort by PG&E to warn people of the power outages,” he adds, “many people we are talking to at closed gas stations had no idea. Turns out not everyone…especially in rural areas look at the Internet all day. Some of these folks were BLINDSIDED.”

There will be no compensation for power customers with spoiled food, and many of the people affected by the outage had previously lost their home insurance and were “actively trying to move”, Callmark notes. “The Bay area is about to find out today if one of the major tunnels…MAJOR…will have to shut down for power outages at noon. Traffic there is a true daily horror show…and if you find this out…at work, you are going to freak.”

And if a fire does hit—which Callmark considers fairly likely—”it immediately turns into a dangerous, life-threatening event with little info, or ways to get info (no power…no gas),” he says. “It’s not just about power…there are DOZENS of ways fires start, and any fluke accident could set up many communities for a dangerous moment.”