By Cooper Veit
Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) announced Monday and Tuesday that it will impose a new wave of public safety power shutoffs on Wednesday and Thursday in areas of high fire risk across 30 counties across northern and central California, affecting up to 800,000 customers.
The measure, the largest preventative outage in state history, was triggered by a forecast of “gusty winds and dry conditions, combined with a heightened fire risk,” the utility said. Areas with humidity levels below 20% and sustained winds above 20 mph or gusts over 45 mph qualify for shutoffs. Neither Stanford nor SLAC nor the Redwood City campus will be affected, but Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve might lose power, according to an AlertSU notification.
Affected areas include much of Oakland, Marin, Santa Clara County and Berkeley, which will cancel Wednesday classes and supply power to critical university facilities with generators. Also included are several small Northern California towns devastated last year by the Camp Fire, including Paradise and Chico.
The Camp Fire, which devastated communities and bankrupted PG&E, was caused by faulty transmission wires during dry gusty conditions similar to those experienced this week across the state.
University of California, Los Angeles climate scientist David Swain told WIRED that preventative outages are not an ideal solution.
“It is sort of unprecedented for such a large utility doing this preemptively,” he said. “They are probably an unfortunately necessary stopgap fire-prevention measure right now, but they come with serious risks as well.”
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay residents flooded local supermarkets and stripped them of emergency supplies such as flashlights and batteries while drivers at gas stations formed lines to stock up on fuel.
Such scenes are only likely to increase in the future, as California’s infrastructure struggles to deal with increasingly powerful offshore winds that turn huge quantities of plant matter into desiccated tinder ready to go off at any ignition.
On Tuesday night the online map of affected areas released by PG&E was down due to excessive demand. PG&E also released a list of tips for navigating the shutoff. Any updates to Stanford’s situation will be posted at https://emergency.stanford.edu.