Gusts topping freeway speed raked the San Francisco Bay Area early Thursday after California’s biggest utility shut off electricity to nearly 2 million people for fear high winds in the forecast could bring down power lines and spark deadly wildfires.
The fire danger that led Pacific Gas & Electric to turn out the lights over a large section of Northern and Central California was expected to shift to Southern California as raging winds moved down the state. Major utilities in Los Angeles and San Diego warned they could be forced to cut off power to an estimated half-million people.
Unprecedented in scope, the deliberate outages that started early Wednesday forced schools and businesses to close and otherwise disrupted life for many people, bringing criticism down on PG&E from the governor and ordinary customers alike.
PG&E cast the blackouts as a matter of public safety, aimed at preventing the kind of blazes that have killed scores of people over the past couple of years, destroyed thousands of homes, and run up tens of billions of dollars in claims that drove the utility into bankruptcy.
“It’s just kind of scary. It feels worse than Y2K. We don’t know how long,” Tianna Pasche of Oakland said before her area was powered down. “My two kids, their school situation keeps moving every second. It’s not clear if we need to pack for a week and go out of town or what to do. So I’m just trying to make sure we have water, food, charging stations and gas.”
But she added: “If it saves a life, I’m not going to complain about it.”
On Wednesday, PG&E cut power to millions in an area that spanned the San Francisco Bay Area, the wine country north of San Francisco, the agricultural Central Valley and the Sierra Nevada foothills, where a November wildfire blamed on PG&E transmission lines killed 85 people and all but incinerated the town of Paradise. The city of San Francisco itself was not in the shut-off zone.
Wind gusts overnight peaked above 70 mph in the Bay Area.
The shut-offs did not eliminate fires altogether: An overnight blaze in the blacked-out East Bay town of Moraga, population 16,000, prompted authorities to evacuate an upscale development of about 100 homes. Many people gathered in a Safeway parking lot in the middle of the night until they could see the flames were out.
By Thursday, PG&E had restored power to some areas, reducing the number of people in the dark to about 1.5 million. But the fire danger from strong winds appeared to be shifting toward the southern part of the state.
Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric warned they might cut power to hundreds of thousands of customers across an area including Los Angeles.
As for PG&E’s territory, the utility warned that customers might have to do without power for days after the winds subside because “every inch” of the system must be inspected by helicopters and thousands of workers on the ground and declared safe before the grid is reactivated.
Ahead of the outages, announced earlier this week, Californians rushed to stock up on flashlights, batteries, bottled water, ice and coolers, took money out of ATMs and filled their gas tanks.
The University of California, Berkeley canceled classes for a second day Thursday because the campus had no electricity. Oakland closed several schools.
Gov. Gavin Newsom said PG&E should have been working on making its power system sturdier and more weatherproof.
“They’re in bankruptcy due to their terrible management going back decades,” he said. “They’ve created these conditions. It was unnecessary.”
Faced with customer anger, PG&E put up barricades around its San Francisco headquarters. A customer threw eggs at a PG&E office in Oroville. A PG&E truck was hit by a bullet, but authorities could not immediately say whether it was targeted.
Sumeet Singh, PG&E’s vice president of community wildfire safety, urged people to be kind to workers out in the field, saying the employees and contractors “have families that live in your communities.”
“Let’s just ensure their safety as well, as they are doing this work in the interest of your safety,” Singh said.