Miles above the Grand Basin, configurations of cool, high-pressure air have pushed dangerous gusts towards the California coast, triggering red flag weather warnings, mass power shutoffs, several wildfires, and thousands of evacuations from San Francisco to San Diego. This state is used to wind—the most infamous have names: Diablo in the north, Santa Ana in the south. But the National Weather Service in San Francisco has already hailed the force and duration of this weekend’s event, predicted to last until Monday, as “potentially historic.”
“It’s important to understand just how severe this weekend’s event is going to be,” said Dr. Craig Smith, a fire scientist at Jupiter Intelligence and former employee of embattled utility company, PG&E. “It’s certainly going to be the strongest offshore wind event of the season...The models we’re seeing now [are] already showing that this event is going to be about as strong as the Oct. 8, 2017 event that led to the northern California firestorm.”
The weekend gales come on the heels of two other major wind events. Earlier this week, utility companies Pacific Gas & Electric, San Diego Gas & Electric, and SoCal Edison initiated a series of power shut offs across California for a strong gust beginning Wednesday night into Thursday, impacting roughly 218,000 people. Two weeks before that, PG&E staged its largest and most controversial outage this fire season, cutting power to nearly 740,000 customers in 35 counties.
The latest winds outdo those in scale—the intense speeds are not confined to high ridges, like the sparsely populated areas of the North Bay and the Sierra Foothills, but will mix down to the urban centers, where vastly more people live. Thursday, PG&E, which services some 16 million people in California, announced it might shut off nearly its entire northern grid this weekend. As of Saturday morning, some 940,000 residents lost power from PG&E alone.
The outages have become a source a profound ambivalence in California, with some calling de-energization a necessary precaution against wildfire, as others—facing food spoilage, accessibility issues, and even evacuation—see it as a safety measure designed primarily for the utilities themselves.
“I basically stay clear of any political or corporate bs but this pg&e outage crap is pretty ridiculous considering both of the main power lines that go to our house are not only going thru a tree but are also completely flush with the trees bark and rubbing, [sic]” an apparent PG&E customer named Meagan JoAnn wrote on Facebook, alongside pictures of the lines. “I would love to know who has ‘checked our lines for safety before turning the power back on?!’ They have been like this for years. Recently they came and butchered the crap out of the tree but the lines are still rubbing. Here goes another outage potentially followed by another this weekend. Good thing I love my home cause I’m not a fan of this state and it’s public utilities companies!”
The state-wide skepticism stems from a bankruptcy filing earlier this year by PG&E, after investigators found the utility liable for the series of fires that devastated California in 2017. The finding put PG&E at the center of several class action and negligence lawsuits over the disasters, including the notorious Camp fire, which leveled the town of Paradise, killing 85 people and destroying 19,000 structures—the most damaging fire in California history. Their bankruptcy filing, the largest of its kind, left residents fuzzy on whether the utilities acted out of concern for public safety or private greed.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom has taken a strong stance against the utilities, openly criticizing the shutoffs and infrastructure failures that rendered them necessary. Thursday, Newsom wrote an open letter to the leadership of all three utilities, claiming the outages “undermined efforts to coordinate with first responders to protect public safety during these events.” This week, he launched a program to mitigate the effects of power shutoffs, appropriating $75 million to fund local and state government investments in back-up generators, fuel storage and other emergency measures in public facilities.
“It’s more than just climate change. It’s about the failure of capitalism to address climate change,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a press conference Thursday morning. “It’s about decades of mismanagement. It’s a story about greed.”
As wildfires erupt across California, fingers are already pointing to PG&E. On Wednesday night, a blaze started in the small, northern city of Geyserville, so-called for a nexus of hot springs, steam vents, and fumaroles tucked below its nearby mountains. The fire tore across Sonoma County, scorching more than 25,000 acres of forest and vineyards, forcing evacuations for 50,000 people. The next morning, PG&E filed a report with the California Public Utilities Commission admitting a transmission tower had malfunctioned the night before. Despite shutting off power to the area that afternoon, a few towers remained active. The company noticed the failure near Kincaid Road at 9:20 p.m. The fire–since dubbed the “Kincaid Fire”–started at 9:27.
The utilities have maintained that all outages are a necessary safety measure. “For us, power safety shutoffs––it’s a last resort,” said Robert Iezza, Communications Manager at SDG&E. “We take into account a variety of factors: fire conditions, weather conditions, wildfire activity, availability of resources and reports from emergency responders.”
“No single factor drives a Public Safety Power Shutoff, as each situation is unique,” a PG&E spokesperson told The Daily Beast in an email. “PG&E carefully reviews a combination of many criteria when determining if power should be turned off for safety.”
But they have had widespread impact on essential workforces, like farmers. Elaine Trevino, president of the Almond Alliance, based in Modesto, told West Farm Press that at least five almond hullers were held up by the outages, without generators or any working machines. In a state nearly synonymous with almond milk, the outage bodes poorly: “For almonds,” Trevino said, “the backup is going to cause a delay in harvests.”
Most essential services, like hospitals or fire stations are equipped with emergency measures for blackouts like these. Jan Emerson-Shey of the California Hospital Association said she didn’t expect any disruption to care. “We are well prepared,” she said, “and when we had the last outages a few weeks ago, there were no serious consequences. Some people delayed elective procedures, but generally speaking, all the hospitals came through that outage just fine.”
Scott McLean, a spokesperson for CalFIRE, the state’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, called the outages inconvenient, but affirmed that there would be no break in service. “We’re as inconvenienced as everybody,” he said. “It is what it is.”