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California Utility PG&E Implements Blackouts To Try And Prevent Wildfires


Many residents of Northern and central California are frustrated and confused today. The state's largest utility is deliberately cutting power to some 800,000 customers. Pacific Gas and Electric says it's an effort to prevent its equipment from sparking wildfires.

Weather in the region is currently extremely dry and windy. Here's PG&E vice president of wildfire safety Sumeet Singh.


SUMEET SINGH: Given the extreme nature of this event, we have been working internally and forecasting kind of what we call a high-stress scenario which is comparable to the October 2017. What we are seeing is that this is very similar in nature, but it does have a broader footprint, especially when you look at the East Bay.

CORNISH: The blackouts are affecting people across large swaths of California, including the San Francisco Bay Area, where Jeremy Siegel of member station KQED is reporting. Hi there, Jeremy.


CORNISH: I want to start about the area these blackouts cover. What have you learned?

SIEGEL: So this is extremely widespread. These blackouts - they're unprecedented in their scope. And they began early this morning, and they've been rolling them out through the day and into tonight, when those strong winds are expected to get pretty dangerous when it comes to fire weather. This spans far north in the Sierra Nevada foothills over into the state's Central Valley and here into the Bay Area, and it's expected to become more widespread as we get into this evening.

And, Audie, when we say 800,000 customers, that's certainly more than 800,000 people because a customer is referring to, you know, a business or a home. So these numbers are extremely high.

CORNISH: How long are the blackouts expected to last?

SIEGEL: PG&E and local officials are warning that this could last up to a week. And that's because crews, once the weather subsides, are going to have to go around inspecting their lines, their equipment for damage. And because this is such a large swath of California, you know, that could take an extremely long time, so that's why they're saying up to seven days.

CORNISH: How are residents coping with all this?

SIEGEL: It's tough for them. They're frustrated. They're confused. A big problem that people have been having is that when they've been notified, PG&E has been directing people to their website to see if their address is covered in these areas that will be losing power. The problem is when people have been going to PG&E's website, it's been going down a lot. Their website's been having a lot of problems due to high traffic.

On top of that, you know, PG&E has been giving some conflicting timelines surrounding these shut-offs, so, you know, people are frustrated. They're confused by it. Bobbie Babin O’Lounds, who - she lives in the Oakland Hills in the East Bay here in the Bay Area. She sums up that frustration pretty nicely.

BOBBIE BABIN O’LOUNDS: I understand the need for safety. Sort of wish that PG&E had given us more advanced notice and also that maybe the upkeep of the lines was being done more consistently.

CORNISH: You know, I mentioned earlier that PG&E said they're doing this because of concerns their equipment could spark a fire during high winds that you all are experiencing there. Are blackouts the only option, though?

SIEGEL: Well, you heard Bobbie there, you know, suggesting that PG&E could be upkeeping their lines better. That's something that elected officials have been criticizing the utility over. People have also suggested the idea of maybe putting lines underground. But you have to realize that this is, you know, thousands of thousands of miles that their utility covers, so that would be extremely difficult and expensive. So PG&E, at this point, says it's their best bet to avoid another tragedy like the fire we saw that destroyed the town of Paradise last November.

CORNISH: That's Jeremy Siegel of member station KQED in San Francisco.

Thanks for your reporting.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeremy Siegel