Wildfires and blackouts: How Californians can prepare

SoCal Edison cut off power for tens of thousands of Southern California residents this morning. PG&E did the same to hundreds of thousands of Northern California residents. New polling shows NorCal residents are still furious about the last round of outages that left millions in the dark. 

At a news briefing in LA today, Gov. Gavin Newsom assigned a lot of blame to utility companies for these outages: “For months and months, we’ve been meeting on a consistent basis, every damn week with these guys, laying out protocols, and they’re not meeting those protocols. I don’t think they get it. But they’re about to get it. They will be held to account. They better step things up. This is simply unacceptable. 21st century in a state like ours, an economy as vibrant as ours, with all our capacity and ingenuity, to see this kind of disruption, potentially putting the lives of millions of Californians at risk because they can’t access critical care is unacceptable.”

Was Newsom’s criticism fair? Michael Wara, Director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at Stanford University, says it’s reasonable to be unhappy with how the utilities have communicated with their customers. But he adds, “The fact that we need power shutoffs of this scale and magnitude, I think the blame for that really needs to be shared more widely, both between the utilities and their regulators.”

He recalls that after San Diego was devastated by the Witch Fire in 2007, the area’s utility company changed how they managed fire risks caused by their utility lines. 

The California Public Utilities Commission determined that San Diego was developing the best practices, which were good for the rest of the state. 

What went into the commission’s decision? “One was cost and the desire to keep rates as low as possible. I think there was sort of a failure of imagination at the time. Maps were available from Cal Fire that indicated that there was high fire risk all over the state, including in Northern California. But we hadn't seen the kinds of utility-caused fires that were so devastating in San Diego County occur yet in the north,” explains Wara. “And so the commission and the utilities basically concluded that this wasn't going to happen in northern California and even central California.” 

An alternative to blackouts? 

In the midst of hot and dry weather, can the utilities do something besides shutting off power to prevent wildfires? 

“They don't have a ton of good options right now in the long run. Both PG&E and Edison are working to make their grid safer in a variety of ways, and also to make their use of power shutoffs more surgical,” says Wara. 

Even San Diego still turns the power off. “But because it's rebuilt its grid with this risk in mind, it can do that in a very targeted way, only where there really is extreme fire risk. And that dramatically reduces impacts to customers,” Wara says. 

SoCal Edison and PG&E are starting to use that strategy too, but it’ll take about a decade for their system to be fully evolved, says Wara. That’s due to the availability of skilled labor to get the job done. 

Blackout prep for consumers

In the meantime, how should people prepare themselves if their power is shut off? 

Wara says it’s important to have a way to communicate in a blackout, and to have enough water, especially if the blackout lasts for a while. 

Lastly: be prepared to leave. “Don't wait. If there's a possibility that you may have to evacuate, that's a pretty good time to leave. Because by the time an evacuation becomes mandatory, it can be very difficult to leave an area,” he says. 

--Written by Amy Ta, produced by Caleigh Wells



  • Michael Wara - director of the climate and energy program at Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment