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California utility faces anger, mistrust over power outages: 'It is excessive'

Joseph Serna, Taryn Luna, Jaclyn Cosgrove and Patrick McGreevy, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES -- A massive planned power outage that could affect millions in Northern and Central California is sparking frustration and skepticism in some areas over whether the extreme action is the best way to reduce fire risk.

Pacific Gas & Electric began turning off the power at midnight to an expected 800,000 customers to reduce the risk of wildfires because of windy conditions. Some of California's worst blazes have been sparked by power lines, including last year's Paradise fire and the 2017 wine country fires.

But such a widespread shutdown has some questioning whether PG&E is going too far.

State Sen. Jerry Hill, a San Mateo Democrat whose district lies within the blackout area, acknowledged there is a fire danger that requires the shutting down of some power lines, but he called the extent of the possible outage troubling.

"I think it is excessive," said Hill, a longtime critic of the utility. "PG&E clearly hasn't made its system safe. These shutdowns are supposed to be surgical. But shutting down power to 800,000 people in 31 counties is by no means surgical."

Hill, who convened a recent hearing on the Public Utility Commission's oversight of PG&E, called on the state agency to do a "root cause" analysis of the electrical shutdowns.

 

"This cannot be something that can be acceptable nor long term," Hill said. "This is Third World, and we are not."

At the Ukiah Senior Center in Mendocino County, executive director Diana Clarke also was concerned.

"People have been on pins and needles all day because of the uncertainty," she said. "They don't know if they should go out and buy supplies, and especially with seniors, they don't have a lot of extra money."

There is a deep sense of frustration and skepticism in the community at the idea of losing power to protect against wildfires.

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