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Thousands of Californians Still Without Power Due to Public Safety Shutoff

Thousands of Californians are without power for the second day in a row after the U.S. state’s largest electricity provider decided to cut the cord to prevent wildfires.

On Thursday, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. conducted a Public Safety Power Shutoff in response to gusty winds and dry conditions that could create massive wildfires like those seen last year during California’s wildfire season. PG&E has begun to restore power to some customers, but approximately 320,000 remain without power going into Friday and the holiday weekend.

The utility provider is currently conducting safety patrols and inspections with more than 6,300 on-the-ground field personnel and 44 helicopters to assess if conditions are safe to turn the power back on for the rest of its affected customers.

PG&E made the announcement on Tuesday that it would conduct the power shutoff for nearly 800,000 customers, affecting 34 portions of northern, central, and coastal counties. Portions of California are currently under a Red Flag Warning, the highest alert level for wildfires where a single spark can create a major wildfire.

“The safety of our customers and the communities we serve is our most important responsibility, which is why PG&E has decided to turn power off to customers during this widespread, severe wind event,” said Michael Lewis, PG&E’s senior vice president of electric operations, in a statement “We understand the effects this event will have on our customers and appreciate the public’s patience as we do what is necessary to keep our communities safe and reduce the risk of wildfire.”

PG&E has been taking a more aggressive approach to preventing wildfires due to new state requirements put in place in response to 2017 wildfires that devastated the Napa and Sonoma wine country portion of the state.

California Governor Gavin Newsom, however, has been critical of PG&E’s approach to shutting off power in the state this week. He said in a report by USA TODAY that the decision to cut power was not made entirely for public-safety benefit, but as a result of “mismanagement over the course of decades” of PG&E.

“What has occurred in the last 48 hours is unacceptable,” Newsom said. “We are seeing the scale and scope of something that no state in the 21st century should experience.”

PG&E was also found responsible for roughly 24 wildfires in 2018 and filed for bankruptcy in January. The New York Times reports that the utility provider could “face up to $30 billion in liabilities for fires started by its equipment in recent years.”

To help customers cope with the outage, PG&E set up Community Resource Centers that provided restrooms, bottled-water, electronic-device charging, and air-conditioned seating for up to 100 people during daylight hours.

PG&E spared one set of customers from its major power shutoff in California: technology sector headquarters. The corporate headquarters of YouTube, Facebook and Instagram, Tesla, Google, Apple, and Netflix were all spared from the outage.

“What PG&E is doing is blacking out the kind of low-voltage wires that deliver power to homes,” said Michael Wara, head of the climate and energy program at Stanford University’s Wood Institute, in an interview with WIRED. “But, typically, big commercial customers, like a tech headquarters…tend to be located closer to the bulk transmission system [and] the high-voltage lines, which are much less impacted by this outage.”

Along with PG&E’s actions, Southern California Edison also cut power to approximately 13,000 customers—which could have an impact on 174,000 customers in nine California counties. At its peak, the power shutdowns by both utilities affected roughly 2 million Californians.