San Francisco — It was a once-unthinkable move: purposely shutting off power to millions of people and plunging a major metropolitan area into darkness.

On Wednesday, utility PG&E Corporation began cutting electricity to almost 800,000 California homes and businesses — representing about 2.4-million people — to prevent wildfires as high winds are forecast to whip through the state.

The outages will hit 34 counties, including much of the San Francisco Bay area, triggering a scramble by residents to prepare for what may be days without power.

For PG& E, forced into bankruptcy by devastating fires that its equipment has ignited over the past two years, there is no alternative. The shut-off is a key strategy for preventing its power lines from sparking another deadly — and costly — conflagration.

It’s largely unprecedented. Never before have California utilities intentionally put so many people out of power for their own safety. Nor have they darkened heavily populated cities in addition to rural areas.

“This is unprecedented in terms of what all of us are facing as a community,” PG& E vice-president Sumeet Singh said at a media briefing on Tuesday night. “We are doing everything we can to minimise the impact on our customers’ lives.”

The shut-off will occur in three phases, with the first affecting 513,000 customers from midnight on Wednesday, the company said. The second stage will occur about noon and affect 234,000. The last phase is being considered for the southernmost portions of PG& E’s service area, affecting 42,000.

As California’s climate warms and dries, the huge blackouts could become a new, annual ordeal. The shut-off warning came two years to the day after wildfires tore through Napa and Sonoma counties, and 11 months after one of PG& E’s transmission lines triggered the Camp Fire, which levelled the town of Paradise and killed 86 people.

“We have a grid that was built to manage a set of circumstances that don’t exist any more,” said Michael Wara, director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at Stanford University. “We are having to adapt to new circumstances brought about by climate change.”

He estimated PG& E’s blackout for two days could have an economic impact of as much as $2.6bn, using a planning tool developed by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

The Bay Area shutoffs will affect major cities including Oakland, San Jose and Berkeley, which warned residents especially in hillside neighbourhoods to prepare for six days without power. California’s transportation agency said it was preparing to close two major tunnels in the region due to the loss of power.

San Francisco, which is less prone to wildfires because of its cool climate and minimal open spaces, will be unaffected. The Silicon Valley campuses of tech giants including Facebook and Alphabet are also expected to be spared.

Meanwhile, Edison International’s Southern California Edison utility said it is weighing cutting power to 106,000 homes and businesses, most of them in the mountains east of Los Angeles.

Within the Bay Area blackout zones, residents were rushing on Tuesday to buy food, water and electric generators. Stores across Oakland had run out of torches and most batteries.

Public officials tried to assure residents that essential services would still be available, while asking them be prepared regardless. The section of PG& E’s website where people can check their home’s status was so inundated that it was inaccessible for much of Tuesday afternoon.

PG& E said its website had received eight times the amount of normal traffic and it will work through the night to get it up back online. As an alternative, the company had posted outage maps for the 34 counties on its Twitter page.

‘No-one is happy’

Governor Gavin Newsom called PG& E’s actions warranted while acknowledging the huge disruption the blackout represents.

“No-one is happy about it, no-one is satisfied, but no-one should be surprised, because we have been anticipating this moment for a year,” Newsom said. The blackout, he said, “shows that PG& E finally woke up to their responsibility to keep people safe.”

State senator Jerry Hill, a frequent PG& E critic, called the blackout an overreaction. “I think they need to spend the billions they’ve already received to harden the system,” he said. “I think they’re in crisis and will do anything to prevent another wildfire.”

PG& E said the shutdown is necessary to keep communities safe and reduce the fire risk. The utility’s meteorologists have predicted wind gusts of up to 112km/h in certain elevated areas, Singh said.

The region’s main commuter rail system, Bay Area Rapid Transit (Bart), said it expects no impact on its electrified trains or its stations, partly because it has already deployed backup generators to stations that need them.

Similarly, the utility that supplies water to 1.4-million residents east of San Francisco Bay said it has stationed generators at its pumping stations and treatment plants, but it asked residents to conserve water just in case.

Sonoma County and the city of Santa Rosa, which were hit hard by the wine country fires in 2017, declared local emergencies and called on Newsom to declare a state emergency with the shut-off.

Generators, batteries

In Emeryville, just across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco, the Home Depot was nearly sold out of backup generators by Tuesday morning. Andy Kovacevic of Oakland snapped up one of the last units. The 73-year-old said he rushed down to the store after he got a robocall from Alameda County, warning him that he could be without power for days.

“I’m not happy about it,” Kovacevic said. “I’m not sure it’s really necessary.”

Susan Goggin, 68, lost her home in that 1991 fire, so she understands the risk. On Tuesday, she was shopping for batteries, bottled water, ice and bread at a store in north Oakland.

She said her husband is disabled, and she worries how she will be able to help him get about their house in the dark. “It will be very difficult,” she said.


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