Facing extreme wildfire conditions this week that included hurricane-level winds, the main utility in Northern California cut power to nearly 1 million people while its counterpart in Southern California pulled the plug on just 30 customers to prevent power lines and other electrical equipment from sparking a blaze.
Pacific Gas & Electric Co. avoided major wildfires during its outage, while Southern California Edison is trying to determine if one of its power lines started a massive fire that drove nearly 100,000 people from their homes in Orange County during fierce winds and extremely dry conditions early Monday.
“I don’t know why they did not shut power off,” said attorney Gerald Singleton, who has sued utilities for devastating wildfires caused by their equipment. “They seem to be still be operating as if climate change and all these things we’re dealing with are not a reality.”
The utility defended its decision not to institute a type of blackout used increasingly as a means of protecting residents after several devastating wildfires, including a 2018 inferno sparked by PG&E equipment that nearly razed the community of Paradise, killed 85 people and destroyed 19,000 homes and other buildings.
Edison spokesman Chris Abel said wind speeds in the mountains above the city of Irvine at the time had not reached the threshold to pull the plug on the power, though they did later in the morning when some electric circuits were cut.
“It’s not something that we take lightly,” Abel said of the decision to shut off electricity. “We know that not having power is a tremendous burden on our customers.”
The Silverado Fire broke out in gusty weather just before 7 a.m. Monday near Irvine, a city of 280,000 about 35 miles (56 kilometers) south of Los Angeles. According to SoCal Edison’s report to state utility regulators, a “lashing wire” that ties a telecommunications line to a supporting cable may have come into contact with a separate 12,000-volt Edison conductor line above.
That blaze and the Blue Ridge Fire farther north in the county, which broke out several hours later in the brushy hills of Yorba Linda, kept more than 70,000 people from their homes Tuesday as winds returned, but not as strongly as the day before when they blew over tractor-trailers and grounded firefighting aircraft.
Two firefighters who battled the Silverado Fire remained in critical condition after suffering second- and third-degree burns over large portions of their bodies, Orange County Fire Authority Chief Brian Fennessey said.
“It’s tough for any firefighter, certainly any fire chief …, to feel this helpless when you’ve got part of our fire family fighting for their lives,” Fennessey said at a Tuesday news conference.
At least 10 homes were damaged and thousands of homes remained threatened as flames moved toward neighborhoods. There was little containment of the fires, though weather conditions were improving.
The fires moved with extraordinary speed and residents described the fear they felt when told to evacuate and then having to navigate through orange-tinted smoke on traffic-choked roads.
Elizabeth Akhparyan Park and her husband, Tony, initially heeded the warning when smoke darkened their Irvine home even though they couldn’t see fire. After joining their three children at her mother’s home in Tustin, they decided to return at night for more keepsakes.
They fled the second time with photo albums and her husband’s violin after seeing flames across the road and hearing police say it was time to go.
“Now I see it, now I’ve got to go,” Park recalled. “The windows were shaking, the upstairs patio had the chairs flying around.”
In Northern California, two dozen wildfires reported since Sunday were rapidly contained without serious damage.
Easing winds allowed PG&E to begin restoring power after the largest of five safety shutoffs this year. At its peak, PG&E cut power to about 345,000 customers — nearly 1 million people — in 34 counties.
The nation’s largest utility said it restored power to more than 228,000 customers and planned to complete the work by Tuesday night after crews do inspections to make repairs and ensure equipment is safe. It received dozens of reports of damage to its equipment, PG&E said.
Scientists have said climate change has made California much drier, meaning trees and other plants are more flammable. October and November are traditionally the worst months for fires, but already this year 8,600 wildfires in the state have scorched a record 6,400 square miles (16,600 square kilometers) and destroyed about 9,200 homes, businesses and other buildings. There have been 31 deaths.
When the Orange County fires broke out Monday morning, Edison had only cut power to 30 customers in the Santa Clarita Valley north of Los Angeles. As of Tuesday afternoon, some 14,500 of Edison’s 5 million customers were without power, Abel said.
A study by the Manhattan Institute last year found that PG&E was far more likely to institute emergency shutoffs — and cut off power to far more people — than Edison in Southern California. PG&E was driven into bankruptcy in January 2019 from the costs of wildfires caused by its equipment.
Jonathan Lesser, an adjunct fellow at the conservative think tank and coauthor of the report, said catastrophic fires caused by failing electric equipment or debris blowing into powerlines are outliers. Some of the largest fires in state history burned this year and were sparked by lightning.
Lesser said preemptive blackouts are like a cheap insurance policy for utilities that don’t have to account for costs to hundreds of thousands of customers who lose power. When the lights go out, many businesses are forced to close, homeowners have to toss spoiled food and vital medical equipment can’t be used.
“Obviously, you can say in retrospect that it would have been better if SCE cut power where the line was. But that’s not how risk analysis works,” Lesser said. “You can’t approach this as would have, could have, should have.”