California’s largest utility provider has announced its plan to cut power on the windiest of days during wildfire season, leaving millions of Californians without power with at most 48 hours’ notice.
It comes after now-bankrupt PG&E admitted a power line failure likely sparked the catastrophic Camp Fire last November, culminating in the deadliest fire season in state history. Dozens of Californians were killed and hundreds of thousands displaced as communities across the state were impacted by toxic smoke that ultimately spread across the continent.
“For public safety, it may be necessary for us to turn off electricity as a last resort when extreme fire danger conditions are forecasted,” wrote PG&E about the new Community Wildfire Safety Program on its website. All electric lines that pass through “high fire-threat areas” will be shut off, potentially impacting more than 5 million customers who live in these areas dependent on affected electric grids.
Though the plan aims to mitigate risks associated with high-fire conditions, it could negatively affect some of the state’s most vulnerable residents. Particularly, the estimated 180,000 medical baseline customers with special needs that require electricity – sometimes to keep themselves alive – who will also see their power cut with conditions that “could last for days”. The company notes that they will make every effort to contact residents impacted by blackouts, but nonchalantly advises that those with “special needs that require electricity… have an emergency plan in place.” PG&E adds that it will not reimburse for any losses, including spoiled food.
California’s Governor Gavin Newsom recently announced $415 million in funding for emergency preparedness and response, $75 million of which will be allocated to helping communities supplement their power sources with home battery systems.
"I’m worried," Newsom said during the budget briefing earlier this month, Bloomberg reports. "We’re all worried about it for the elderly. We’re worried about it because we could see people’s power shut off not for a day or two but potentially a week."
PG&E first rolled out the shut-off program last year but it only applied to around 570,000 customers, reports the San Francisco Chronicle. This time around, that number has increased nearly 10-fold. A compound of factors will drive the company’s “Public Safety Power Shutoffs”, including a Red Flag Warning for intensified fire conditions, low humidity levels, forecasted sustained winds above 25 miles (40 kilometers) per hour and gusts in excess of 45 miles (72 kilometers) per hour, and the amount of dry fuel on the ground. The company adds that even if infrastructure were upgraded, it would still require shut-offs to reduce the risk of wildfire.
As researchers speculate that the deadly fires that hit the Golden State last year may become the new norm, PG&E expects that these power outages will occur several times a year, although they will be “impossible to predict with complete certainty” even in communities that are not experiencing extreme fire conditions.