More than a million people in California were without electricity on Wednesday, when the state's largest utility company unplugged to avoid a repeat of the past two years, when wind-blown power lines sparked deadly fires that destroyed thousands. of houses.
The unpopular decision that disrupted everyday life – driven by forecasts of dry and stormy weather – came after catastrophic fires that bankrupted Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and forced it to take more aggressive measures to prevent fires.
The drastic measure caused long lines in supermarkets and hardware stores as people rushed to buy ice, refrigerators, flashlights and batteries in a northern California strip. Cars stopped at traffic lights that were dark. Schools and universities canceled classes. And many companies have closed.
Most of downtown Sonoma was completely dark when Joseph Pokorski, a retired man, appeared in the morning coffee-drinking ritual, followed by beer and cocktails.
The town square bar was open and lit by lanterns, but coffee was out of the question and only cash was accepted. Pokorski decided to forgo a 30-minute wait for a cup of coffee from the bakery next door and go for beers and some greyhound cocktails with vodka and grapefruit juice.
"I'm not crazy about coffee," said Pokorski. "I can get on or off. No big deal."
Customers at Friedman's Home Improvement store were guided by employees with flashlights and lamps to pick up batteries, power cords, and other necessities to be able to spend several days without power.
With the sun shining in the open, without a cloud of smoke in the air and only gentle breezes, the action was condemned by many of those whose lives were troubled.
Contractor Rick Lachmiller, who was buying extension cords for his generator, was upset and said he felt PG&E fire the gun at the interruption as it was not windy Wednesday morning and did not give sufficient warning.
"People have refrigerators full of food," he said. "It leaves the whole community trying to save their food, their work or whatever."
More than 500,000 customers in northern California were out of power, the utility said, and about 250,000 outages were planned later Wednesday to prevent their equipment from causing fires during the winds that are expected to be built. About 2 million people are expected to be affected over several days.
The dealership has taken drastic action because of Diablo's hot, dry winds in northern California, said Scott Strenfel, chief meteorologist at PG&E. They were also part of a California-wide climate system that will produce Santa Ana winds in the south the next day, he said.
"These weather events have historically caused the most destructive fires in California history," said Strenfel.
"For everyone asking, 'Where is the wind? Where is the wind?' Don't worry, the wind is coming," said Steve Anderson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. "Obviously PG&E doesn't want to cut power when there are already strong winds. You want to cut power before it happens."
56 to 72 km / h gusts are expected to sweep from the San Francisco Bay Area to the central agricultural valley and especially in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, where a November fire from PG&E transmission lines killed 85 people. and practically incinerated the city of paradise.
The cuts were considered a last resort and followed a plan set up after the Hell in Paradise and several other PG&E equipment-related charges that forced the dealership into bankruptcy for more than $ 30 billion in possible damages arising from lawsuits.
PG&E has cut power several times this year and deliberate disruptions could become the new normal at a time when scientists say climate change is leading to more violent flames and longer fire stations.
Very few fires were currently burning in California on Wednesday. So far, only a small fraction of the area burned has burned this year compared to recent years, although no one has blamed it on power cuts.
The utility planned to shut down electricity in parts of 34 municipalities to reduce the chance of high winds knocking down or knocking down trees on power lines during a dry and stormy siege.
Interruptions were not limited to fire-prone areas, as utilities must shut down entire distribution and transmission lines over much wider areas to minimize the risk of forest fires.
Before the lights went out in East Bay's Moraga town, cars lined up at gas stations and customers filled their cars in the city's only supermarket with ice bags, canned goods, breads, cereals, breakfast and water. .
The lines were also long at drugstores and hardware stores where emergency supplies were running low.
"Do you have flashlights?" Elma Lear asked in Moraga Hardware and Lumber. "Or candles?"
The store, which sold 500 flashlights on Tuesday, ran out of both and ran out of batteries and coolers – even the ultra-expensive Yeti that cost up to $ 400, said owner Bill Snider.
Lear, who had stocked up on non-perishable food, money, and filled the gas tank, was sent to a nearby decoration store, where he had to shell out over $ 40 for long-lasting beeswax candles.
"I'll bite the bullet," she said.
The disruptions came as residents of the region's northern wine region of San Francisco marked the two-year anniversary of deadly fires that killed 44 and destroyed thousands of homes. San Francisco is the only Bay Area municipality of nine counties where power will not be affected by blackouts.
It may take up to five days to restore power after the danger passes, because every inch of the power line must be checked by helicopters and ground crews to ensure it is not damaged or can cause a fire, PG&E said.
"If there is damage, it could extend the duration of the outage," said PG&E spokesman Mark Monthsan. "But we will not restore power until it is absolutely safe to do so."
To the south, Southern California Edison was considering power outages for nearly 174,000 customers in nine counties, as Santa Ana winds were forecast on Thursday. San Diego Gas & Electric has notified about 30,000 customers that they could lose energy in rural areas.
Classes were canceled for thousands of school children and at the University of California, Berkeley, Sonoma State University and Mills College.
Hospitals would operate on backup power, but other systems could see their generators fail after a few days. The interruptions posed a threat that hydrants would not function at a time of extreme fire hazard.
The counties activated their emergency centers and authorities urged people to provide water supplies for several days, to keep sensitive medicines like insulin in cool places, to drive carefully because the traffic lights could be out, to have a full gas tank. for emergencies and to check food in freezers and refrigerators for deterioration after power restoration.
PG&E has set up around 30 community centers offering air conditioning, restrooms, bottled water and daytime recharging stations.
In the El Dorado Hills east of Sacramento, California, Ruth Self and her son were being disrupted while leaving a Safeway supermarket that had been stripped of almost no water and ice.
Self said she was not upset, given the lives lost nearly a year ago in Paradise, conjuring up images of people who burned in their cars trying to escape.
"I just can't imagine," she said. "I hope (the interruptions) are only for a few days. I think it's more positive than negative. Ask me again Friday night, when I haven't had a bath in two days, when I spent two days playing card games."
Melley reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press writers Janie Har and Olga Rodriguez in San Francisco, Jocelyn Gecker in Moraga, Don Thompson in El Dorado Hills, Haven Daley in Oakland, and Christopher Weber and John Antczak in Los Angeles contributed to this story.
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