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PG&E Shuts off Power Amidst Intensifying Wildfire Threats

By Ruby Freedman

On Wednesday, October 9, there was a Public Safety Power Shutdown (PSPS) in 34 counties across Northern California. According to the Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s (PG&E) press release on October 12, the power shutdown affected approximately 738,000 residents in these counties.

“I was doing my homework, just on my computer and listening to music. My lights were on and then everything went black. No warning, no nothing. I went into my living room and my whole house was quiet, everything was dark, it was actually pretty scary,” said Daniel Goellner, a Berkeley High School (BHS) freshman. Many residents of Berkeley suffered similar experiences with the shutdown.

Prior to the shutdown, the City of Berkeley’s website advised residents affected by the shutdown to check on their neighbors, evacuate if they are disabled, refrain from using fire, and use their judgment  in evacuating if they felt threatened. The website also listed Berkeley public libraries as places where internet would be available to people affected by the PSPS.

This shutdown comes after several widespread wildfires over the past couple of years, destroying many people’s homes and schools. The October 9 shutdown was an attempt by PG&E to prevent another fire from happening during this fire season. Bill Skoonberg, a retired PG&E employee of fifty years, explained some of the reasoning behind the extremity of the PSPS. Skoonberg stated that the outage was “because of climate change, because everything is so incendiary, because of the drought, and because in the heat things burn more.”

A common critique among Bay Area residents was that PG&E had been inadequately updating their power lines, and now they are forcing their customers to go without power. Skoonberg mentioned that much of this is a result of climate change.

Many schools in the area cancelled school as a result of the outages. Although BHS remained in session, many BHS students were directly impacted.

BHS freshman Albert Shapiro said that his power went out at 11:03 PM, despite PG&E’s promise that the outage would start at 8 PM. Shapiro said, “The lights went out and I couldn’t charge my phone.” The outage also affected Shapiro’s family’s ability to make dinner.

Many of those impacted felt the situation could have been handled differently. They felt ignored and frustrated, and thought that PG&E should have communicated more clearly with its customers.

While the PSPS may have disrupted many people’s lives, it was an improvement over past safety measures, which seemed to be minimal. Santa Rosa residents received a call with orders to evacuate in the middle of the night because of the Tubbs Fire, a destructive fire during October of 2017. They received no prior warnings and no power outages as a precaution during the dry season.

Many Bay Area community members appreciated the precautions PG&E took, despite the inconveniences customers faced. Aaron Rumph, a junior in Berkeley International High School, mentioned how even though it was not ideal, there was a bright side to the outages. “An upside to not having power is not having to worry as much about fire risk in my area,’’ said Rumph.

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