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Millions without power as PG&E blackouts bring concern, anger, resolve

Taryn Luna, Maria L. La Ganga, Patrick McGreevy and Joseph Serna, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

PLACERVILLE, Calif. -- Classes were canceled. Frozen foods melted. Hospitals switched to emergency generators. Blooms withered in florists' coolers. Unused food was jettisoned at shuttered restaurants. Lines formed at gas stations. Cellphones faded out.

That's what happened Wednesday when the state's largest utility shut off power to millions of Californians in a desperate attempt to avoid the killer wildfires that have charred hundreds of thousands of acres, caused billions of dollars in damage and spurred cries for widespread change in how electricity is delivered over the state's aging grid.

Pacific Gas & Electric Co. began cutting power to customers shortly after midnight in counties around Sacramento. By the end of the day, the outages had radiated out to encompass 34 counties, with all but seven counties north of Merced at least partly in the dark.

About 800,000 customers were expected to lose power Wednesday, leaving more than 2 million people without lights, air conditioning, computers and refrigerators. Gusty conditions are expected through Thursday morning, and PG&E fears windblown electrical lines could spark fires if power is not cut.

The move by PG&E marks the largest power shut-off to date as California utilities attempt to reduce wildfire risks. Equipment malfunctions have been tied to some of the state's most destructive and deadliest fires, including the 2017 wine country blazes and last year's Camp fire, which devastated the town of Paradise and killed 85 people.

In January, PG&E filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, anticipating multibillion-dollar legal claims stemming from the Camp fire, which also destroyed nearly 14,000 homes. A month later, officials at the utility acknowledged that its equipment probably sparked that blaze.

 

"The safety of our customers and the communities we serve is our most important responsibility, which is why PG&E has decided to turn power off to customers during this widespread, severe wind event," Michael Lewis, PG&E's senior vice president of electric operations, said Wednesday. "We understand the effects this event will have on our customers and appreciate the public's patience as we do what is necessary to keep our communities safe and reduce the risk of wildfire."

But tempers flared against the utility everyone loves to hate -- enough so that a cautious PG&E erected barriers around its San Francisco headquarters Wednesday. At the same time, the California Highway Patrol was investigating whether someone shot at a PG&E truck Tuesday night.

The CHP initially reported that a rock had shattered the passenger-side window of one of the utility's vehicles, which was traveling south on Interstate 5 in the small Northern California town of Maxwell. But when an officer took a closer look, there was "some evidence that it might have been a bullet that hit the window," said Officer Cal Robertson of the CHP's Northern Division.

PG&E officials did not respond to a request for comment.

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