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‘People Are Freaking Out.’ Thousands of Californians Left Powerless Amid Electricity Cuts to Prevent Wildfires

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Updated: | Originally published: ;

As hundreds of thousands of Californians grapple with a power shutoff intended to reduce the risk of wildfires, people affected by the outages say that their communities are racked by anxiety and frustration about the disruption — as well as fear that the complications associated with the outages outweigh the intended benefits.

“People are freaking out around here,” says Jeffery Stackhouse, a Livestock and Natural Resource Advisor from Fortuna, Calif who spoke with TIME along with his colleague, Lenya Quinn-Davidson, the area fire advisor with UC Cooperative Extension in Humboldt County, Calif., and director of the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council. They said the outages have fundamentally disrupted life in their community: Schools have closed, some businesses can’t run credit cards, people have lined up outside of gas stations to try and get fuel, and cars have been stuck in traffic jams as a result of traffic light outages.

Meteorologist Rob Carlmark of local news channel ABC10 wrote on Twitter Thursday morning that there were strong winds in some areas, and that supplies such as water, flashlights and generators seemed to be running low. “In short…it’s ongoing…people are on edge…every stoplight is a four way stop with traffic issues…people have NO idea when power is coming back…it’s a big deal that is getting bigger today,” Calmark wrote.

Utility company Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) announced earlier this week it was shutting off power for hundreds of thousands of customers ahead of forecasts for “dry, hot and windy weather including potential fire risk.” As of Thursday morning, the company had restored power to 126,000 customers, and 600,000 customers were still without power. An additional 4,000 customers were also scheduled to lose power in Kern County on Thursday. The company said Thursday that it plans to inspect the lines for safety, conduct repairs and restore power after weather conditions improve.

On Thursday, another utility company, Southern California Edison, announced that it’s cutting power for 12,900 customers in Southern California, including in Los Angeles, Ventura and San Bernardino “due to weather conditions that may create the potential for elevated fire risk.” It also said that it was considering cutting power to an additional 173,877 customers, including some in Los Angeles County.

The outages across California come at a time of heightened concern about the role of utility companies, especially PG&E, in starting wildfires. Last year, the deadliest wildfire in California’s history, the Camp Fire, was ignited by a PG&E power line. The tragedy heightened concerns about the age of some of PG&E’s power lines as well as the management of vegetation next to the state’s utilities.

But some experts, like Quinn-Davidson, are worried that the Camp Fire has put too much focus on utility companies as the cause of fires. While major fires like the Camp Fire are sometimes caused by utilities, she says that fires can have many other causes, including lightning, arson, and sparks from dragging chains. All of these factors, she says, are compounded by “lack of fuel management, poor land-use planning, and homes that aren’t ready for fire and aren’t resilient to fire.”

And, she adds, power outages can complicate response and evacuation efforts should a fire break out. Phone lines have been jammed during this week’s outages, she says, and people have had trouble communicating with loved ones.

“If a fire starts because of other causes — which could easily happen under severe conditions — now we have no way to communicate,” Quinn-Davidson says. “Seriously, like, if this power outage happened when the Carr Fire happened — how would you evacuate people? That’s completely possible. You could have a power outage and have a fire start from a roadside cigarette. Or arson. Or anything. And then what?” (The Carr Fire was reportedly sparked by a vehicle.)

Stackhouse and Quinn-Davidson agree that while scheduled power outages shouldn’t be eliminated as a tool for preventing fires, they should be used sparingly, and in conjunction with preventative measures, such as fire-proofing homes and managing land. “The disruption is pretty huge for something we’re not sure is going to prevent a major wildfire. The actual likelihood of that event was not equal to the impact that this is having,” says Quinn-Davidson.

Chris Dicus, a professor of wildfires and fuels management at California Polytechnic State University, says he can understand why the utility company decided to turn off the power, because so many deadly fires have ignited along power lines. “We have to reduce the potential for ignition,” says Dicus. “It’s not an easy thing, it’s not fun, but this is helping all of us. Hopefully this is a short-term solution and we’ll come up with permanent solutions that don’t impact the public in the years coming.”

Dicus says that his family, who live in Los Osos, are still waiting to see if PG&E will turn off their power, although his daughter, a student at Humboldt State University, was already without power.

Others have directed their frustration at the private utility company, PG&E. Kamala Harris, a 2020 presidential candidate and California Senator, blamed PG&E for the outage in a tweet.

“None of this is acceptable and PG&E must be held accountable for the lack of maintenance of their power lines,” Harris said.

The company filed for bankruptcy last winter as it faced potential liabilities of $30 billion in the wake of wildfires, according to Bloomberg. The energy company had also lost two-thirds of its market value in the wake of the Camp Fire, which Cal Fire said claimed 86 lives. Frustration also surged after PG&E disclosed that as of Sept. 21, it has completed only 31% of its planned tree-trimming projects for 2019, which aim to cut back vegetation near power lines which could pose a fire threat, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

As for the power outages, some, including Dicus, are hopeful that they don’t become the new normal. “My hope is this is going to be sort of a temporary stopgap measure that we can implement while we come up with more permanent solutions, which include more hardened infrastructure on these utility corridors.”

Correction, Oct. 11

The original version of this story misstated Rob Carlmark’s last name. It is Carlmark, not Calmark.

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