Energy

Frustration mounts as California is hit with more blackouts

Key Points
  • Frustration and anger mounted across Northern California as the state's biggest utility began another round of fire-prevention blackouts Tuesday that could leave millions of people without electricity.
  • About 1 million people were still without power Tuesday after a shut-off over the weekend that affected nearly 2.7 million.
  • The blackout Tuesday was PG&E's third in a week and the fourth in a month.
A PG&E worker attempts to clear a fallen utility pole from Pentz Road in Paradise, Calif., after it was felled by the Camp Fire, Thursday, November 8, 2018.
Karl Mondon | Digital First Media | Getty Images

With no electricity for the fourth straight day Tuesday, chef and caterer Jane Sykes realized she would have to throw out $1,000 worth of food, including trays of brownies, cupcakes and puff pastry.

And she had little hope of getting a good night's sleep — there was no way to run the machine she relies on to counter her apnea.

"I don't think PG&E really thought this through," she lamented.

Frustration and anger mounted across Northern California on Tuesday as the state's biggest utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, began another round of widespread blackouts aimed at preventing its electrical equipment from sparking wildfires in high winds.

Millions of people have been without power for days as fire crews race to contain two major wind-whipped blazes that have destroyed dozens of homes at both ends of the state: in Sonoma County wine country and in the hills of Los Angeles.

Across Northern California, people worried about charging cellphones, finding gasoline and cash, keeping their food from spoiling and staying warm. Some ended up at centers set up by PG&E where people could go to power their electronics and get free water, snacks, flashlights and solar lanterns.

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"There's a hidden cost," Sykes said. "Absolutely public safety above all else, but there's a big financial loss for my profession, having to throw away a lot of hard work."

PG&E said Tuesday's blackouts — the third round in a week — would affect about 1.5 million people in 29 counties, including 1 million still without power from a shut-off over the weekend.

The outages have made people like Linda Waldron, a mother of two who lives north of San Francisco in San Rafael, realize the things we take for granted.

She discovered she was low on gas and began to panic as she drove around looking for an open gas station. She wound up driving to San Francisco, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) away, before she found one. She also stocked up on cash after realizing she had only $1 in her wallet.

"What if we needed to evacuate and I had no gas in the car?" she said as her 5-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son cavorted at a playground. "I didn't even think about gas and cash because I'm too busy with these guys."

In Placer County, Angel Smith relied on baby wipes and blankets to keep her 13-month-old son Liam warm and clean. The family has been without power since Saturday night and cannot draw well water without electricity.

She ran a cord from her neighbors' generator to keep her phone and tablet charged so the two could watch movies. Temperatures were expected to drop below freezing overnight in parts of Northern California.

"The hardest part about this for me has been making sure I keep my son warm as it gets cold here," Smith said.

In Mendocino County, Suzanne Lemley Schein and her husband, Glenn, lost power on Saturday and have been spending the time since playing backgammon by candlelight and going to bed early.

They haven't been able to rent out a studio on their property, or even offer it to wildfire evacuees, because it has no power or water.

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She said she doesn't like "the power that PG&E has over all of us," she said. "This has crippled us in a lot of ways."

People in well-to-do Marin County, population 260,000, north of San Francisco, have also been without power since Saturday.

Sykes works in San Francisco, so she has "civilization during the day," but she said it is eerie to drive along darkened highways. She hasn't opened her freezer since the outage and is not looking forward to it.

"I'm pretty sure it's not going to be salvageable," she said.

PG&E, which is in bankruptcy after its equipment was blamed for a string of disastrous fires over the past three years, including a blaze that all but destroyed the town of Paradise and killed 85 people, has said its foremost concern is public safety.

But Gov. Gavin Newsom and top utility regulators have accused the company of mismanaging its power system and failing for decades to make the investments needed to make it more durable. He and others have also complained that the utility has botched the outages by not keeping the public adequately informed.

The California Public Utilities Commission plans to open an investigation that could result in fines against PG&E.

The commission said it also plans to review the rules governing blackouts, will look to prevent utilities from charging customers when the power is off and will convene experts to find grid improvements that might lessen shut-offs next fire season.

The state can't continue experiencing such widespread blackouts, "nor should Californians be subject to the poor execution that PG&E in particular has exhibited," PUC President Marybel Batjer said in a statement.

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