Updated Oct. 10, 8 a.m.
Bob Moffit, Capital Public Radio. Brian Melley and Terence Chea, Associated Press
(AP) — More than a million people in California were without electricity Wednesday as the state's largest utility pulled the plug to prevent a repeat of the past two years when windblown power lines sparked deadly wildfires that destroyed thousands of homes.
The unpopular move that disrupted daily life — prompted by forecasts calling for dry, gusty weather — came after catastrophic fires sent Pacific Gas & Electric Co. into bankruptcy and forced it to take more aggressive steps to prevent blazes.
The drastic measure caused long lines at supermarkets and hardware stores as people rushed to buy ice, coolers, flashlights and batteries across a swath of Northern California. Cars backed up at traffic lights that had gone dark. Schools and universities canceled classes. And many businesses closed.
Chase Federmeyer drove from Grass Valley to the Winco in Yuba City to stock up on ice. As she left the store, she had one child strapped in the shopping cart and the other in a front pack. Her power is out and her husband works for PG&E.
"I think everyone just has to go with it and support them. It takes time to fix everything. He's always gone. We don't get time with him because he's trying to make towers better,” Federmeyer said.
A few spaces away, Don Jones was loading beer into the back of his truck. He has power, but the shutoff will likely affect his work as a property manager.
"I don't know what we're going to do because we rely on the internet. It could be an issue. It depends on where it's at,” Jones said.
People report power in the foothills was turned off a little after midnight.
It wasn't just rural areas in Northern California left in the dark due to planned power outages.
Communities like Woodland and Lincoln, on the edge of farm and pasture land, were also included in the power shutoff — though the outages were hit and miss.
Randy Johnson, who owns Lincoln Gun Exchange, called the shutoff “a scam” and says local businesses are paying for what happened to areas with heavy timber in recent years.
"PG&E got kind of stuck with it. I kinda feel a little sorry for ’em for what happened previously. If you didn't have the fuel load, you wouldn't have had the disasters we had, both Santa Rosa and Paradise,” he said.
Johnson got the word that the power was out just after midnight and was at the shop soon after to start up his new generator.
Three doors down, Morgan Sheppard works at the Holy Cow Couture handbag store, which had power and was open. She says her significant other is a first responder and she supports the shutdown.
"It is difficult for businesses especially like us who operate day to day basis. but it's also extremely important why the shutdowns are here,” Sheppard said.
Areas Impacted By PG&E Outage
More than 500,000 customers in Northern California were without power, the utility said, and another phase of shutoffs that could impact about 300,000 more customers began later Wednesday to prevent its equipment from sparking wildfires during winds forecast to build. There may also be a third phase of outages coming, which would impact about 4,000 customers in Kern County.
The utility reported late Wednesday that around 50,000 of those initial customers in the Sierra Foothills had their power restored. PG&E is also beginning safety patrols in some parts of Humboldt County and hopes to restore power to 60,000 to 80,000 customers there Thursday morning.
About 2 million people were expected to be affected by these outages for up to several days.
"To everyone asking, 'Where's the wind? Where's the wind?' Don't worry, the wind is coming," said Steve Anderson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. "Obviously PG&E doesn't want to cut the power when there's already strong winds. You want to cut the power before it happens."
Gusts of 35 mph to 45 mph were forecast to sweep from the San Francisco Bay Area to the agricultural Central Valley and especially in the Sierra Nevada foothills, where a November wildfire blamed on PG&E transmission lines killed 85 people and virtually incinerated the town of Paradise.
The cutbacks were deemed a last resort and followed a plan instituted after the Paradise inferno and several other blazes blamed on PG&E equipment that forced the utility into bankruptcy over an estimated $30 billion in potential damages from lawsuits.
PG&E has cut power several times this year and deliberate outages could become the new normal in an era in which scientists say climate change is leading to fiercer blazes and longer fire seasons.
Very few fires were currently burning in California on Wednesday. Only a tiny fraction of acreage has burned, so far, this year compared to recent years though no one has attributed that to the power cuts.
The utility planned to shut off power in parts of 34 counties to reduce the chance of fierce winds knocking down or toppling trees into power lines during a siege of dry, gusty weather.
Outages weren't limited to fire-prone areas because the utilities must turn off entire distribution and transmission lines to much wider areas to minimize the risk of wildfires.
Before the lights were supposed to go out in the East Bay town of Moraga, cars queued up at gas stations and customers filled carts at the town's only supermarket with bags of ice, canned goods, loaves of bread, breakfast cereal and water.
Lines were also long at pharmacies and hardware stores, where emergency supplies were running low.
"Do you have any lanterns?" Elma Lear asked at Moraga Hardware and Lumber. "Or candles?"
The store, which sold 500 flashlights Tuesday, was out of both and had also run out of batteries and coolers — even ultra-pricey Yeti coolers that cost as much as $400, owner Bill Snider said.
Lear, who had stocked up on nonperishable food, cash and filled her gas tank, was directed to a home decor shop nearby where she had to fork over $40 for long lasting beeswax candles.
"I'm going to bite the bullet," she said.
The outages came as residents in the region's wine country north of San Francisco marked the two-year anniversary of deadly wildfires that killed 44 and destroyed thousands of homes. San Francisco is the only county in the nine-county Bay Area where power will not be affected by blackouts.
It could take as many as five days to restore power after the danger has passed because every inch of power line must be checked by helicopter and ground crews to make sure it isn't damaged or in danger of sparking a blaze, PG&E said.
"If there is damage, that could possibly extend the length of the outage," said PG&E spokesman Mark Mesesan. "But we will not restore power until it's absolutely safe to do so."
To the south, Southern California Edison was considering power shut-offs to nearly 174,000 customers in nine counties as Santa Ana winds were predicted Thursday. San Diego Gas & Electric has notified about 30,000 customers they could lose power in backcountry areas.
Classes were canceled for thousands of schoolchildren and at the University of California, Berkeley, Sonoma State University and Mills College.
Hospitals would operate on backup power, but other systems could see their generators fail after a few days. Outages even posed a threat that fire hydrants wouldn't work at a time of extreme fire danger.
Counties activated their emergency centers and authorities urged people to have supplies of water for several days, to keep sensitive medicines such as insulin in cool places, to drive carefully because traffic lights could be out, to have a full gas tank for emergencies and to check the food in freezers and refrigerators for spoilage after power is restored.
PG&E set up about 30 community centers offering air conditioning, restrooms, bottled water and electronic charging stations during daylight hours.
In the El Dorado Hills east of Sacramento, California, Ruth Self and her son were taking an outage in stride after stocking up with supplies at a Safeway grocery store.
Self said she wasn't upset, given the lives lost nearly a year ago in Paradise, invoking images of people who burned in their cars trying to escape.
"I just can't imagine," she said. "Hopefully (the outages) are only for a couple days. I think it's more of a positive than a negative. Ask me again on Friday night when I haven't had a shower in two days, when I've had to spend two days playing card games."
Melley reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press writers Janie Har and Olga Rodriguez in San Francisco, Jocelyn Gecker in Moraga, Don Thompson in El Dorado Hills, Haven Daley in Oakland, and Christopher Weber and John Antczak in Los Angeles contributed to this story.
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