SONOMA, Calif. – 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.
Customers at Friedman's Home Improvement store were guided by employees with flashlights and head lamps to snatch up batteries, power cords and other necessities to get them through possibly several days without power.
With the sun shining outdoors, not a wisp of smoke in the air and only gentle breezes, the action was condemned by many of those whose lives were inconvenienced.
Contractor Rick Lachmiller who was buying extension cords for his generator, was upset and said he felt PG&E jumped the gun on the outage, since it wasn't windy Wednesday morning, and didn't provide enough warning.
“People have refrigerators full of food,” he said. “It leaves this whole community scrambling around trying to save their food or their job or whatever it is.”
More than 500,000 customers in Northern California were without power, the utility said, and about 300,000 more outages were planned later Wednesday to prevent its equipment from sparking wildfires during winds forecast to build. About 2 million people were expected to be affected 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 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.