Skip to main content

California's Largest Utility Resorts to Blackouts to Prevent Wildfires

Outages were intended to be a last resort in PG&E's wildfire mitigation plan, but it has already used them twice during the first weekend of California's wildfire season.
Linesmen from Pacific Gas and Electric repair power lines after the Valley Fire swept through the town of Middletown, California, on September 16th, 2015.

Linesmen from Pacific Gas and Electric repair power lines after the Valley Fire swept through the town of Middletown, California, on September 16th, 2015.

Several fires erupted in Northern California over the weekend, marking the beginning of the state's 2019 fire season. The largest blaze, dubbed the Sand Fire, burned at least 2,200  acres in Yolo County, destroying multiple non-residential structures and forcing more than 300 residences to evacuate. High fire risk conditions stretched from the North Bay region to the Sierra foothills, and Pacific Gas & Electric, the state's largest utility, cut power to thousands of residents on Saturday to prevent power lines from sparking even more blazes.

The blackouts came less than two weeks after the California Public Utilities Commission approved of new wildfire mitigation plans for power companies, including that of PG&E, which expanded preventative power shutdowns. "De-energizing power lines may be necessary as a last resort to avert devastating utility caused wildfires," Commissioner Clifford Rechtschaffen said in a statement last month, after the PUC approved the plans.

Though PG&E's Public Safety Power Shutdowns were intended to be a last resort when fire risk is high, the company has already had to use the option twice as high temperatures, low humidity, and strong winds hit the Northern region of the state. Windy conditions are especially dangerous, when falling trees and branches can knock down power lines.

On Friday, the company warned residents on Twitter that it was "actively monitoring weather conditions for a potential Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) within the next 18 to 36 hours in areas of the North Bay and the Sierra foothills where extreme fire risks exist." Early Saturday morning, PG&E cut power to some 1,700 customers across Yolo, Solano, and Napa counties; at 9 p.m. Saturday, the company shutdown power for an additional 20,500 customers in Butte and Yuba counties.

Northern California was hit particularly hard during the state's record-breaking 2017 and 2018 fire seasons. According to fire investigators, PG&E equipment failures or transmission lines ignited 17 of the 21 major fires that scorched the northern part of the state in 2017, including two that left 13 people dead. In May, Cal Fire found that the company's power lines also had a role in 2018's Camp fire, the state's largest and deadliest to date, which razed more than 18,000 structures and killed 86.

In California, power companies are responsible for clearing trees and brush from power lines, and are held liable if utility equipment sparks flames. After the 2017 fire season, state lawmakers passed new legislation in 2018 to protect utilities from going under by requiring the Public Utilities Commission to determine the maximum amount a company can be charged without going bankrupt. The new law, SB 901, also requires utilities in the state to develop wildfire mitigation plans for the first time. But SB 901 only applies to liabilities from the 2017 fire season and potential fires after 2019, leaving utilities with no protection for damages from the 2018 fire season.

Faced with some $17 billion in damages and a class action lawsuit after the last two fire seasons, PG&E filed for bankruptcy in February. That same month, the company submitted its first state-mandated fire mitigation plan. PG&E's proposal included a new vegetation management plan, increased inspections of its equipment, the installation of new weather stations to monitor conditions in high-risk areas, and the expansion of its power shutoff program.

Consumer groups raised concerns that the days-long outages come with risks of their own, especially for the elderly or those with special medical needs, many of whom rely on electricity to power medical devices. The Public Utilities Commission's approval requires PG&E to work with the California Office of Emergency Services to adequately notify the public and emergency services ahead of proactive power outages.

By Monday morning, the Sand Fire was 30 percent contained, and PG&E had restored power to nearly all of the customers subjected to the blackouts. Temperatures across the region are expected to remain high this week, however, reaching 103 degrees in Sacramento.