More than 1 million in California are without power to curb wildfire risk; more outages coming

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Pacific Gas and Electric Co. is shutting off power to hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses amid dry conditions in an effort to prevent fires. Wochit, Wochit

REDDING, California – More than 1 million Californians were in the dark Wednesday in the first phase of a multi-day Public Safety Power Shutoff aimed at curbing wildfire risks amid high winds and hot, dry conditions.

Pacific Gas and Electric said power was shut off to 513,000 Northern California homes and businesses early Wednesday. Another 234,000 Pacific Gas and Electric customers will lose power at noon local time, and 42,000 customers in the southernmost areas of the company’s reach could also go dark, the state’s largest power company said.

The precautionary shutdown is expected to last through most of Thursday, and some areas could be without power longer as the utility ramps back up after the winds abate. 

“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,” said Michael Lewis, a senior vice president for the company. “We … appreciate the public’s patience as we do what is necessary to keep our communities safe and reduce the risk of wildfire.”

Schools were shuttered for thousands of students as municipalities braced for days without power.

“It’s unfortunate, but we just do as we are instructed, and are hoping we can get kids back into school on Friday,” Cascade Union Elementary School District Superintendent Jason Provence said. 

Parts of Southern California could also go dark – Southern California Edison said it was considering implementing the Public Safety Power Shutoff plan to cut power to 173,000 customers.

That would push the total to almost 1 million homes and businesses statewide. Because every customer account could represent service to multiple residents or employees in a business, the number of people affected by the outages could be in the millions.

Class-action lawsuit:California wildfire was caused by Pacific Gas & Electric

The precautionary outages had some residents grumbling, many about food they fear will go bad.

“We just bought a whole bunch of groceries and now we have to dump it,” said Annie McNally of Jones Valley, California. “I am so fed up with these power outages.”

Dan and Shawnie Reeves have four kids in Humboldt. They said they only had 12 hours notice that blackout was coming.

“We just bought food the day before and have at least $300 in food in our 2 freezers and fridge,” they said in a Facebook post. “We are low income and won’t be able to replace it if it goes bad, so we are stressed and very upset with PG&E.”

The blackout warning system hasn’t played well, either. The company’s website has struggled with the heavy traffic, preventing or delaying some subscribers from finding information about the blackouts. The company apologized for the issues on social media.

Lewis said PG&E anticipates the wind “weather event” will last through midday Thursday; peak winds are forecast to reach 60-70 mph at higher elevations. Nearly all nine counties in the San Francisco Bay Area could be subjected to the shutdowns, the only exception being the city and county of San Francisco.

PG&E will open resource centers with charging stations and restrooms available to the public during daylight hours.

“They’re places where affected customers can come in to charge electronic devices, obtain bottled water and use available restrooms,” PG&E spokesman Mark Mesesan said. “It’s more of an in-and-out option. They’re not equipped as a place to stay.”

PG&E has been under intense scrutiny since November, when the deadliest and most devastating wildfire in state history roared through Butte County. California fire officials determined the blaze, which killed 85 people and destroyed more than 10,000 homes, was ignited by the company’s transmission lines.

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The beleaguered utility filed for bankruptcy earlier this year, and a new CEO has tried to restructure the company and win back customer confidence.

The state is bracing for another severe wildfire “season,” although officials say that season has become just about year-round. PG&E ordered a much smaller power cutoff in June involving thousands of customers in the Northern California counties of Napa, Solano and Yolo.

Read this: In Paradise, wildfire victims rush to meet deadline for claims against PG&E

On Tuesday, Cal Fire issued a fire warning across much of the state.

“There is a #RedFlagWarning for most of Northern California and #FireWeatherWatch for the southernmost region of California from Wednesday morning to Thursday evening due to gusty winds and low humidity,” Cal Fire warned on Twitter. “This is #CriticalFireWeather and caution should be taken when outdoors.”

Residents in areas where power was going out lined up at gas stations and streamed into stores in pursuit of generators, flashlights, batteries and non-perishable food.

Jennifer Siemens, whose home in Paradise burned in the Camp Fire last year, said she’s now renting in nearby Oroville and is preparing for her third power shutdown in a month. Siemens said the outages scare her children, who were traumatized during the massive Paradise blaze, and also affect the family’s cleaning business.

“What’s wrong with the power lines that they have to do this so much?” asked Siemens. “We don’t want any more fires, obviously, but I feel like they are going a little overboard.”

Bacon reported from McLean, Va.Contributing: Jorge L. Ortiz, Kristin Lam, and Marco Della Cava, USA TODAY; David Benda, Redding Record SearchlightGabrielle Paluch, Palm Springs Desert Sun

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