Hundreds of thousands of households lost power when California’s largest utility, Pacific Gas and Electric, shut down a vast web of electrical lines as a precaution against wildfires. Not knowing how long the outage would last, residents hurried to gas stations and supermarkets, stocking up on essentials as if a hurricane were bearing down.
It was an extraordinary moment for California. In the state that brought the world the iPhone and the internet as most people know it, residents fumbled for flashlights, hauled jerrycans of gasoline and read instructions on how to manually open their automatic garage doors. In the fifth-largest economy in the world, hundreds of thousands of people were forced off the grid.
The vast scope of the power shutdown suggested a new layer of vulnerability for California. A state prone to earthquakes, tsunamis, mudslides and wildfires now was faced with a power company’s decision to shut off the electricity, with relatively little notice.
By Wednesday afternoon, at least 500,000 customers — each customer can represent numerous family members or apartment dwellers — were without power. The company said electricity would be shut off for 250,000 additional customers Wednesday evening.
Meteorologists said the strong winds that were forecast in the hills and canyons Wednesday resembled those that propelled deadly fires in the wine country of Napa and Sonoma counties two years ago. The power company, which declared bankruptcy in January in the face of tens of billions of dollars in liabilities from past fires, said it was not taking chances this time.
The shutdown led to the cancellation of classes at Humboldt State University, Mills College in Oakland and the University of California, Berkeley. It also contributed to multiple crashes at intersections where traffic lights went dark. Banks and businesses in some Northern California towns shut down; agricultural processing machines were inoperable in the thick of the fall harvest.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, one of the largest concentrations of wealth and cutting-edge technology in the world, the shut-off felt like an anachronism, something that might happen in a less-developed country. Long lines formed at gas stations a dozen or so miles from the headquarters of Apple and Google.
“What’s next?” said Robert Cruz, an electrical foreman whose crews have installed fiber optic cables at Facebook. He was at a gas station in San Jose, the country’s 10th-largest city, filling up a 5-gallon container with gasoline for a generator he was on his way to buy from a friend. He and his wife, an executive assistant at Intel, spent Tuesday calling nearby stores for new generators, but the closest store that had one was 1 1/2 hours away in California’s Central Valley.
“We’re doing what we can to keep our refrigerator and our freezer going,” he said.
For many, the power shutdown was a reminder of how helpless they were without electricity. While wealthier residents were able to fall back on solar panels and battery systems for electricity, living off the grid was not an option for Sharmaine Lindahl.
The power outage had cascading consequences for Lindahl and her husband, who live in Arcata, nearly 300 miles north of San Francisco. On Tuesday night, she received a text message from PG&E; warning her of the impending power shut-off. Five hours later the lights went out and all of the electrical appliances in her kitchen, the only way she can cook, were useless.
Most businesses were closed in Arcata on Wednesday, she said, and gasoline was scarce.
Wednesday was also her husband’s payday, but the bank was closed and his company paid him in cash because it could not print out checks.
“Our bank account is going to be overdrawn,” Lindahl said. “We live paycheck to paycheck. So this is going to hit us very hard.”
The Lindahls felt like their city was collateral damage: The fire risk is low in Arcata, a city along the coast whose weather this time of year is most often fog and rain.
As the outages spread Wednesday, so did anger and frustration at PG&E;, a company that has a history of negligence and safety violations, including a gas pipeline explosion south of San Francisco in 2010 that killed eight people and has it under criminal probation. The company’s equipment was also deemed responsible for California’s deadliest fire, the inferno that razed the city of Paradise last year, killing 86 people.
When the forecast winds failed to materialize in some areas Wednesday, criticism mounted against PG&E.; Was it necessary to turn so many lives upside down? Was this a ploy by the company to prove how much California needs it?
Jim Nielsen, a state senator who represents the area around Paradise, called the shut-off “unacceptable.”
“This policy has to change,” he said in a statement. “PG&E;’s decision to protect itself from liability at the expense of hardworking Californians will not be tolerated.
“Millions without electricity is what a third-world country looks like, not a state that is the fifth-largest economy in the world,” he said.
PG&E; has for months warned that preemptive power blackouts would be likely as it tries to catch up on a yearslong backlog of maintenance work on the power grid.
The issue has been a frequent point of discussion in PG&E;’s criminal probation proceedings. Fire victim advocates and Judge William Alsup of the U.S. District Court in San Francisco have repeatedly questioned why PG&E; had not turned off the power as often as other utilities, such as San Diego Gas & Electric, in high-risk weather conditions.
PG&E; said the sole reason for power shut-offs was safety.
“We are going to protect human life first,” William Johnson, its chief executive, said in an interview over the summer about the company’s grid strategy.
Bill Biasi, the mayor of Winters, a city surrounded by orchards and tomato fields in the Sacramento Valley, said the power shut-off would be a setback for nut-processing businesses that need power for their equipment. But he said he sympathized with the company’s dilemma — how to provide power in a part of the state so prone to wildfires.
“PG&E; is in a tough situation,” Biasi said. “I think they’re doing what they can to make sure that what happened last year doesn’t happen again. But is it frustrating? It’s frustrating to everyone.”
The changing climate has brought hotter summers that dry out vegetation and make it more vulnerable to fire. Of the 10 largest wildfires recorded in California, five have been in the last decade. PG&E; is required by law to serve homes nestled in wildland areas and is liable if its equipment starts a fire, whether or not it was found to be negligent.
PG&E; has not offered a concrete timetable on when the power will be restored. Every inch of every line needs to be inspected before lines can be reenergized, the company has said, and that process could take up to five days.
The prospect of being without power for so long has been especially difficult for the most vulnerable.
In Oakland, Stacey Milbern spent more than two hours Tuesday afternoon calling PG&E; to find out whether power would be cut off to her home. Milbern uses a ventilator for breathing and needs other medical devices.
On Wednesday afternoon she still had electricity.
“I’m hoping that means my house won’t be affected, but it’s on the outage maps,” she said. “For the everyday disabled person, it’s so scary.”
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