Fire season puts Californians in the dark

Updated: Apr 12, 2020

PG&E preemptively cuts power in 35 counties for the greater good of Northern California. 

By Sarah Best, Staff Writer

Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) shut off power in the Northern Sierra and Bay Areas as a proactive measure to prevent wildfires anticipated by weeklong dry winds and defective power lines.

The company turned off the power in a Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) on Oct. 10 shortly after midnight. It began in the Bay Area and spread to surrounding counties including Humboldt, Kern and Santa Cruz. PG&E estimated that the power would be out for roughly 48 hours before restorations would begin for schools and communities. Wind speeds reached more than 50 mph in 16 counties that were involved in the outage, any of which could have been potentially devastated by a faulty power-line induced fire.

University of California, Santa Cruz student Kelsey Sanford commented, “My friends on campus were affected by the power outage when it went off around midnight, but soon after the backup generators went on.”

This preemptive power-cut decision is an unprecedented occurrence in California. PG&E reportedly paid $11 billion in damages for its role in the fire in Paradise, California last year. There is speculation about whether this recent shut-off was PG&E’s tactic to raise their rates in order to make up for money lost in the Paradise fire lawsuit.

Prior to easing the blackout burden, PG&E noted that power restoration should occur within 24-48 hours of initial shut off, but disclosed that “customers should prepare for multiple-day outages.”

However, PG&E took extensive measures to minimize the imposition on the nearly 800,000 people it provides for by opening “Community Service Centers” in various locations within each county, according to the company’s Twitter. They provided basic needs such as water and electric-device charging stations.

The company revealed that nearly 100 issues were discovered in seemingly sufficient power lines during daytime inspections, and said, “It is possible that any one of these instances could have been a potential source of ignition had a PSPS not been initiated.”

On Oct. 11, PG&E released a report stating that the power for “approximately 543,000 customer has been restored” and “an ‘all clear’ decision has been extended to 34 of 35 counties impacted by the Public Safety Power Shutoff, except for Kern County.” As of Oct. 12, power has been revived to all customers.

Their website was updated every 15 minutes with maps of the impacted areas as each county was affected. Schools up north like Humboldt State University, UCSC and UC Berkeley were not only affected by the outage, but classes were canceled for a few days as well. Though some parts of each campus remained with no power, the majority were supported with back-up generators.

The university sent out emails to all staff and students notifying them of the possibility of power shutdown, which areas may be may be affected and how to prepare for it. Though Northern and Central California were expected to be most impacted by the power loss, cities as far south as Lompoc and Bakersfield were affected as well.

In spite of the widespread inconvenience caused by the power shutdown, UC Berkeley undergrad Esther Suh lightheartedly remarked that, “Students were calm and happy because this postponed our midterms.”

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