SAN RAFAEL, Calif. -- Frustration and anger mounted across Northern California on Tuesday as the state's biggest utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, began another round of widespread blackouts aimed at preventing its electrical equipment from sparking wildfires in high winds.
Millions of people have been without power for days as fire crews race to contain two major wind-whipped blazes that have destroyed dozens of homes at both ends of the state: in Sonoma County wine country and in the hills of Los Angeles.
Across Northern California, people worried about charging cellphones, finding gasoline and cash, keeping their food from spoiling, and staying warm. Some ended up at centers set up by Pacific Gas & Electric so people could power their electronics and get free water, snacks, flashlights and solar lanterns.
The utility said Tuesday's blackouts would affect about 1.5 million people in 29 counties, including 1 million still without power from a shut-off over the weekend.
Also Tuesday, the National Weather Service issued a wind advisory for parts of Sonoma and Napa counties until 11 a.m. today, and the most powerful gusts were expected during the overnight hours.
The increased wind speeds would create "rapid fire growth potential," the weather service said.
At the same time, conditions in Southern California, where the Getty Fire scorched the western edge of Los Angeles on Monday, are expected to be even more dangerous: The Storm Prediction Center warned of "extremely critical fire weather" beginning late Tuesday, when record-setting Santa Ana winds were expected to whip across the region.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said Tuesday that the Kincade Fire in Northern California had barely grown overnight -- though at 75,415 acres, it is already California's biggest fire of the year.
The fire was 15% contained, and officials said they expected it to burn until at least Nov. 7.
Emergency responders on the other end of the state are trying to control a fast-moving brush fire that has consumed about 656 acres on the western edge of Los Angeles -- a slight growth since Monday -- and forced the evacuation of more than 7,000 homes. Fire officials said Tuesday that the Getty Fire was 15% contained. At least 12 homes have been destroyed in the blaze, and five others have been damaged, officials said.
Some Californians said the power outages have made them realize the things they take for granted.
Linda Waldron, a mother of two who lives north of San Francisco in San Rafael, discovered she was low on gas and began to panic as she drove around looking for an open gas station. She wound up driving to San Francisco, about 20 miles away, before she found one. She also stocked up on cash after realizing she had only $1 in her wallet.Gallery: Wildfires in California
"What if we needed to evacuate and I had no gas in the car?" she said as her 5-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son frolicked at a playground. "I didn't even think about gas and cash because I'm too busy with these guys."
In Placer County, Angel Smith relied on baby wipes and blankets to keep her 13-month-old son Liam clean and warm. The family has been without power since Saturday night and cannot draw well water without electricity.
She ran a cord from her neighbors' generator to keep her phone and tablet charged so the two could watch movies. Temperatures were expected to drop below freezing overnight in parts of Northern California.
"The hardest part about this for me has been making sure I keep my son warm as it gets cold here," Smith said.
People in Marin County, with a population of 260,000 north of San Francisco, have also been without power since Saturday.
Chef and caterer Jane Sykes works in San Francisco, so she has "civilization during the day," but she said it is eerie to drive along darkened highways. She hasn't opened her freezer since the outage and said she is not looking forward to it.
"I'm pretty sure it's not going to be salvageable," she said, adding that she will likely have to throw out $1,000 worth of food, including trays of brownies, cupcakes and puff pastry.
Pacific Gas & Electric, which is in bankruptcy after its equipment was blamed for a string of disastrous fires over the past three years, including a blaze that all but destroyed the town of Paradise and killed 85 people, has said its foremost concern is public safety.
But Gov. Gavin Newsom and top utility regulators have accused the company of mismanaging its power system and failing for decades to make the investments needed to make it more durable. He and others have also complained that the utility has botched the outages by not keeping the public adequately informed.
Pacific Gas & Electric on Monday revealed it had failed to notify about 23,000 of its customers of precautionary power shutdowns earlier this month. It also disclosed that its equipment malfunctioned near two fires that broke out in Contra Costa County on Sunday afternoon.
The utility identified the incidents in filings to the California Public Utilities Commission the same day the commission announced it will investigate how Pacific Gas & Electric and other utilities handled shut-offs this year.
The utility de-energized lines to 729,000 of its customers between Oct. 9 and 12, but notifications were not sent to about 23,000 customers, including 500 with medical conditions, Pacific Gas & Electric stated in a filing with the commission.
Those who weren't notified did not have contact information on file with the company or were overlooked because of the shifting grid patterns that the utility was establishing, among other reasons, according to company officials who declined to comment beyond what was stated in the report.
The company said it tries to reach customers who require power for medical equipment -- known as medical baseline customers -- through any means necessary, including phone calls, text messages, emails or knocks on doors.
"Of the 30,026 medical baseline customers impacted, PG&E verified 29,144 received notice prior to de-energization," the report stated. "A total of 28,138 confirmed receipt of a notification, which included 5,080 door knocks. The medical baseline customers that did not confirm receipt of an automatic notification prior to de-energization had received multiple contact attempts."
Pacific Gas & Electric has faced accusations that it is triggering power shutdowns mainly to avoid further financial exposure.
The California Public Utilities Commission plans to open an investigation that could result in fines against the utility.
The commission said it also plans to review the rules governing blackouts, will look to prevent utilities from charging customers when the power is off and will convene experts to find grid improvements that might lessen shut-offs next fire season.
Information for this article was contributed by Janie Har, Jocelyn Gecker and Stefanie Dazio of The Associated Press; by Joseph Serna, Alejandra Reyes-Velarde and Colleen Shalby of the Los Angeles Times; and by Derek Hawkins, Marisa Iati, Andrew Freedman, Kim Bellware, Kayla Epstein, Hannah Knowles and Jason Samenow of The Washington Post.
A Section on 10/30/2019
Print Headline: As California fires rage, new blackouts raise ire