Written by Thomas Fuller
The lights went off in stages in Northern California on Wednesday, from the forests near the Oregon border, down the spine of the Sierra Nevada and finally through the dense hillside communities across the Bay from San Francisco.
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.
In the state that brought the world the iPhone, residents fumbled for flashlights. 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.
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.
The utility has for months warned that pre-emptive power blackouts would be likely.
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.