By Alex Dobuzinskis and Andrew Hay
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – A California dentist canceled dozens of appointments and supermarkets tried to save rotting food on Thursday as electricity was cut to over 600,000 homes and workplaces in a second day of planned power outages to cut wildfire risks.
Pacific Gas and Electric Co (PG&E) imposed the unprecedented shutoffs as gale-force winds and dry weather continued to pose a critical fire threat in northern California.
As high winds moved south, a similar cutoff was under way by neighboring utility Southern (NYSE:) California Edison, which warned more than 173,000 customers could lose power in parts of eight counties, including Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Ventura.
Residents, business owners and even public officials expressed frustration about the blackouts, which the utility began on a much smaller scale last year during times of high fire risk.
“Northern California is not a Third World country,” the San Jose Mercury Statesman thundered in an editorial. “It’s unacceptable that the region is being forced to endure this level of disruption as the long-term strategy for dealing with the threat of wildfires.”
PG&E, California’s biggest investor-owned utility, said it had restored power to 126,000 customers by Thursday morning but a further phase of cuts was expected to hit 4,000 more.
Power will be restored to areas once up to 77 mph winds die down and 2,500 miles of transmission lines could be inspected.
“We faced a choice between hardship or safety, and we chose safety,” Michael Lewis, PG&E’s senior vice president of electric operations, said in a statement.
The National Weather Service said the hot gusty winds that usually hit northern California in October, sometimes called the “Diablo Winds”, will continue into Friday morning.
Much of northern California, from San Francisco to the Oregon border, remains under a state “red flag” fire alert, though no major blazes have been reported.
“As soon as the weather passes, PG&E will begin safety inspections with 6,300 field personnel and 45 helicopters standing at the ready once we get the all clear,” the utility said in a tweet on Thursday.
Oakland supermarkets brought in refrigeration trucks to save food and Montclair businesses like Laurie Shepherd’s dental clinic were unable to tell patients when they would reopen.
“We don’t know what tomorrow will bring,” said Shepherd by phone, after she tore a tendon rushing to prepare for the outages. “We were just left up in the air.”
Michael Wara of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment estimated the economic cost of the shutdown could reach $2.5 billion, with small businesses hit hardest as they typically lacked back-up generators.
Some of California’s most devastating wildfires were sparked in recent years by damage to electrical transmission lines from recurring bouts of high winds, which then spread the flames through tinder-dry vegetation into populated areas.
PG&E filed for bankruptcy in January 2019, citing potential civil liabilities in excess of $30 billion from major wildfires linked to its transmission wires and other equipment.
In Santa Rosa, a California wine country town where entire subdivisions were destroyed by a deadly 2017 wildfire, restaurateurs Mark and Terri Stark said they had to close one of their six restaurants after it lost power.
“This is preventative medicine and medicine sometimes is not good to take,” said Mark Stark, 60, who lost one restaurant in the 2017 blaze. The fires in that region killed 46 people.
“Those fires and what they caused are still very real for people in our ‘hood,” he said.