Northern California braced for mega power cut


A huge wildfire killed 86 people in Paradise, California, last yearImage copyright
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A huge wildfire killed 86 people in Paradise, California, last year

A power company has started cutting electricity to around 800,000 homes, businesses and other locations in Northern California, in an attempt to prevent wildfires.

Large swathes of the San Francisco Bay Area – though not the city of San Francisco itself – are expected to be affected.

The region’s utility company, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), has warned the shut down could last several days, drawing anger from some residents.

With weather forecasts predicting high winds, the move is intended to prevent the risk of fallen power lines from igniting the kind of wildfires that have devastated large areas of the state in previous years.

“The conditions are ripe: dry fuel, high winds, warm event. Any spark can create a significant event,” said Ray Riordan, director of the Office of Emergency Management in San Jose, during a press conference on Tuesday.

The huge “Camp Fire” in the town of Paradise last year burned 150,000 acres and left 86 people dead. An investigation determined that poorly maintained PG&E equipment was to blame for starting the blaze – the deadliest in California’s history.

The firm was also blamed for deadly fires in 2017. Subsequent lawsuits led the publicly-traded company to declare bankruptcy in 2019, a process which is still ongoing. PG&E is the sole provider of gas and electricity for much of Northern California, and so the vast majority of consumers in the region do not have an alternative source of power.

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Media captionRebuilding Paradise: ‘Our town is gone’

“We have experienced an unprecedented fire season the past two years,” said Tamar Sarkissian, a PG&E spokeswoman, speaking to BBC partner CBS News.

“And what we learned from that is that we need to be taking further steps to ensure the safety of our customers and the communities that we serve. Public safety power shut off is one of the many steps that we’re taking.”

Rush for supplies

PG&E has carried out several shut offs over the course of the past year, though none at the scale of what is predicted this week.

“None of us are happy about it,” said California governor, Gavin Newsom. “But this is part of something that we knew was likely to occur several months ago, when PG&E finally woke up to their responsibility to keep people safe.”

The warnings stretch north of the San Francisco Bay Area, in areas such as Napa and Sonoma, famed for wine-making. Further south, many cities synonymous with Silicon Valley giants could be affected, such as Cupertino, home to Apple.

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Experts are concerned gusty winds could produce the conditions for wildfires to ignite

Local shops reported an influx of customers buying up supplies for a black out that could, if the weather remains adverse, last for several days.

“The idea of five days without electricity is devastating,” said Libby Schaaf, mayor of Oakland, but added: “We fully expect that to be a worst-case scenario. This is our first time going through this.”

But websites providing information about the cuts have buckled under heavy traffic loads. Many residents have taken to PG&E’s social media channels to express their frustration.

“This is ridiculous!” wrote Veronica Key.

“You wasted the money you should have been using on safety precautions to give dividends to your stockholders. Now you have to shut down our power like some sort of third world country.

“When you do shut down the power you can’t even get your notification website to work properly! Get it together PG&E! No more rate increases to pay for your incompetence.”

Starting on Wednesday, 28 Community Resource Centers in the region will be opened to provide “restrooms, bottled water and electronic-device charging”.

Many schools in the area have told students to stay at home on Wednesday and await further information for the remainder of the week.

Despite widespread frustration, local meteorologist Mike Pechner told CBS the move was warranted.

“It’s not an overreaction at all. As the wind comes in, the wires, of course, oscillate back and forth. If they touch, they start a fire.

“[Cutting power] is taking downed wires and high winds out of the fire equation.”


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