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Fires Still Burn as PG&E Implements Mass Outages

Largest intentional blackout in California history keeps millions without power while the state burns

Over two million people across Northern California were without power on Sunday. Pacific Gas & Electric is working to restore power, but the company has scheduled another Public Power Safety Shutoff, this time for Tuesday morning.

Despite the shutoffs, fires are burning across the state. The Kincade Fire, a 66,000 acre fire in northern Sonoma County, was only 5% contained as of Monday at 3 p.m. Located just northwest of Santa Rosa, the Kincade Fire has forced more than 180,000 people to evacuate, including the towns of Windsor and Healdsburg. 

There are no casualties or missing persons reported as of yet, but 80,000 structures are at risk. Firefighters from as far south as Pasadena and as far north as Oregon have reported to the scene to try and stop the fire from pushing west across Highway 101. 

PG&E’s shutoff is an unprecedented intentional blackout, and is the largest intentional blackout in history, according to the Los Angeles Times. The utility’s goal is to prevent high winds—which have reached upwards of 100 miles per hour in some parts of Sonoma County—from sparking wildfires.

In a PG&E press conference on Saturday, CEO and President of the utility company—but not the entire corporation—Andy Vesey said the company’s goal is safety. 

“Right now we have a big, historic event coming at us,” Vesey said. “We have two and a half million customers being impacted. There’s a real threat to public safety and that’s why we’re doing this.”

Yet, across the nation, media outlets are questioning PG&E’s shutoffs. 

Articles from Time, The Nation and ProPublica have claimed that PG&E’s shutoffs may not actually reduce wildfire risk. The shutoffs could prevent debris from sparking fires from electrical wires, but that is not the only cause of wildfires. Abraham Lustgarten for ProPublica points to cigarettes, barbecues, generators (which are used extensively during shutoffs) and cars as other common fire starters.

“The blackouts solved nothing, of course,” Lustgarten writes. “De-energizing the electrical grid is a bludgeon: imprecise, with enormous potential for collateral damage as people deal with a darkened world. It doesn’t even eliminate fire risk.”

To Lustgarten’s point, a structure fire on the east side of the Arcata Plaza erupted Sunday afternoon, likely caused by a generator at the Big Blue Cafe, according to reporting by the Times Standard. While firefighters contained the blaze and no injuries were reported, initial estimates for the damages are as high as $2 million.

“It’s more than just climate change. It’s about the failure of capitalism to address climate change. It’s about decades of mismanagement. It’s a story about greed.”

Gavin Newsom, California Governor

In some instances, it seems the shut offs weren’t implemented in time to prevent electrical lines from sparking fires. PG&E admitted that it registered a failed jumper cable at one of its transmission towers near the possible ignition point of the Kincade Fire right before the fire began. The area of the fire was set for a Public Safety Power Shutoff, but it didn’t begin until 28 minutes after the fire started.

The outages have pressed some government officials to speak out against the corporation and its tactics. California Governor Gavin Newsom called out PG&E for greed and mismanagement in a press conference on Thursday. 

“It’s more than just climate change,” Newsom said. “It’s about the failure of capitalism to address climate change. It’s about decades of mismanagement. It’s a story about greed.”

Vermont Senator and Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders tweeted that it was time to think about public ownership of utilities.

Amidst the outages, PG&E’s stock has plummeted to all-time lows. On Saturday, Governor Newsom encouraged Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway to buy PG&E. 

In the Saturday press conference, Vesey declined to entertain questions about PG&E’s tainted image. Vesey said those discussions can come later as they will focus on the public’s safety for now. 

“No matter how much we focus on the past, it will not help us at all today or tomorrow,” Vesey said. “We take lessons learned, we take actions, we put in our programs and we work responsibly.”

For now, California is under a statewide declaration of emergency by Governor Newsom, who has promised to hold PG&E accountable.

“We will hold them to an account that they’ve never been held to in the past,” Newsom said in a press conference. “We will do everything in our power to restructure PG&E so it is a completely different entity when they get out of bankruptcy by June 30th of next year.

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