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Power Outage Intended to Prevent Wildfires Will Affect Millions of Californians Who Use PG&E

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A PG&E analyst monitors weather and satellite images of fire areas at the PG&E Wildfire Safety Operations Center on Aug. 5 in San Francisco. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) began shutting off power in Northern California midnight Wednesday in its biggest attempt yet to prevent wildfires, The San Francisco Chronicle reported.


The outage will impact 800,000 customers in Northern and Central California, and could last through Tuesday of next week. Because a customer could mean a business or residence that includes multiple people, the total number of people affected could reach the millions. It is the largest preventative power shutoff in state history, according to The Associated Press.

The outage is an attempt to prevent tree limbs from knocking against power lines and sparking a blaze as strong winds follow a dry period.

"We implement this public safety power shutoff as a last resort," vice president of PG&E's Community Wildfire Safety Program Sumeet Singh said in a statement reported by CNN.

The National Weather Service (NWS) has issued red flag warnings for the North Bay Mountains and Valleys, East Bay Hills and East Bay Valleys starting Wednesday morning, according to CNN. This means that warm weather, low humidity and strong wind combine to increase fire risk.

"This is a recipe for explosive fire growth, if a fire starts," NWS said, as CNN reported. "Have your go back ready."

PG&E's response to these conditions comes after it has been found responsible for 2018's Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive fire in the state's history. Even before that determination, PG&E filed for bankruptcy in January because it faced so many lawsuits for wildfire damages.

Survivors of the Camp Fire, which scorched the town of Paradise, were skeptical of PG&E's action now.

"I understand their concerns but in my opinion it's too little too late, we already had our town burned to the ground," Ben Humphries, who lost his Paradise home in the Camp Fire and now lives in Oroville, told The Associated Press.

Another Paradise survivor, Jennifer Siemens, who also now lives in Oroville, questioned whether the shutoff was really the best solution.

"What's wrong with the power lines that they have to do this so much?" she asked The Associated Press. "We don't want any more fires, obviously, but I feel like they are going a little overboard."

Ultimately, the question is whether PG&E is capable of safely delivering power as the climate crisis makes wildfires more likely, The San Francisco Chronicle said.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom said the utility had no choice in this instance, but also needed to upgrade in order to avoid situations like this in the future.

"No one is satisfied with this, no one is happy with this," he said, as The Associated Press reported.

The shutoff will impact 34 counties across the state and eight of nine counties in the Bay Area, according to The San Francisco Chronicle. Only San Francisco County itself will be spared.

So far, nearly 5,000 customers in Solano County have lost power, as have nearly 600 in Marin. The power outages will occur in stages north to south and were not supposed to impact the Bay Area until around noon Wednesday.

At one point, there was concern that the outages would close the Caldecott Tunnel on Highway 24 and the Devil's Slide tunnel on Highway 1 in San Mateo County, but generators were installed to keep them open, The San Francisco Chronicle reported.

The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system said train service would not be impacted by the outages, though some station escalators could lose power, CNN reported.

The news also sent Californians to the gas pump and the supermarket to stock up.

"We sold out of lanterns this morning. The shelf is completely empty," Howard Gibbs, the manager at an Ace Hardware in Lafayette, 20 miles east of San Francisco, told The Associated Press. "We've got just a few flashlights left, and we're down to our last couple of propane tanks, too."

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