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"What's Happened Is Unacceptable": Californians Are Outraged After Millions Had Their Power Shut Off

"This is not from my perspective a climate change story as much as a story about greed and mismanagement," Gov. Gavin Newsom said.

Posted on October 11, 2019, at 1:17 a.m. ET

Noah Berger / AP

A Pacific Gas & Electric worker walks passed a home in Moraga, California.

LOS ANGELES β€” Gim Crew prepared as best she could before California's largest utility turned off the lights for more than 2 million people in an effort to prevent its power lines and equipment from sparking wildfires as severe winds blew across the dried-out state.

The 44-year-old filled up the gas tank, stocked up the refrigerator with ice, and left a lantern next to the bed.

But early Thursday, just a few hours after Pacific Gas & Electric shut off power to her Moraga neighborhood east of San Francisco, Crew and her husband were scrambling through the darkness to flee their home after a fast-moving brush fire broke out nearby.

"One of our neighbors said, 'There’s a fire. Get out,' so we grabbed whatever clothes we had, tried to find our glasses and everything, find our wallets, got into the cars, and just bugged out," Crew told BuzzFeed News.

Noah Berger / AP

Firefighters battle the early-morning blaze work off Merrill Drive in Moraga.

As PG&E began to restore power to parts of the Bay Area and in foothills of the rugged Sierra Nevada, Californians, including Gov. Gavin Newsom, expressed outrage over the utility's decision to shut off power for approximately 738,000 customers β€” or more than 2 million people β€” in portions of more than 30 of California's 58 counties Wednesday and Thursday.

"We’re seeing a scale and scope of something that no state in the 21st century should experience," Newsom said during a press conference. "What's happened is unacceptable."

Billed as a choice between hardship and safety, the utility company, whose equipment has been blamed for starting some of the most destructive and deadly fires in the state's history, chose safety and preemptively deenergized 25,000 miles of electricity lines in the hopes of not sparking any flames during the hot and dry conditions.

The decision, unprecedented in its scale, forced businesses to shut their doors, closed colleges and schools, put people out of work, left researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, scrambling to save samples from spoiling, and put those who rely on electricity for their medical needs at risk.

Ezra Shaw / Getty Images

A sign posted on the door of Sartaj Indian Cafe in Sausalito.

For Crew and her neighbors who rely on Wi-Fi to receive calls and texts because they live in an area with poor cellular phone coverage, the power shutoffs also hampered their ability to evacuate.

"If a fire were to start up we would have no way of knowing this was happening and sure enough it happened exactly that way," she said.

Crew, who spoke to BuzzFeed News as she charged her phone at her husband's office in Berkeley, said they woke up to the sound of a neighbor honking their car horn. They gathered their things, then drove into the darkness.

"You could smell the smoke and you could see an orange glow in the sky," Crew said, "but it wasn't quite clear what the direction was or whatever so you don't even know if you’re driving the right way."

While climate change and drought have fueled the intensity of California's wildfires in recent years, Cal Fire investigators have found power lines and equipment owned by PG&E and other utility companies across the state caused many of the state's devastating wildfires.

Noah Berger / AP

A neighborhood leveled by the Camp fire in Paradise, California, in 2018.

The revelations have cost PG&E billions in lawsuits and damage claims and plunged the company into bankruptcy as it works to make billions of dollars in improvements to its equipment and cut back on vegetation that could come in contact with transmission lines and spark fires.

"It’s decisions that were not made that have led to this moment in PG&E’s history and the state of California," Newsom said, referring to the power outages. "This is not from my perspective a climate change story as much as a story about greed and mismanagement."

Although the cause of the fire in Moraga was still under investigation, no power lines were in the area of the blaze, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. The 40-acre fire broke out after power was shut off and was 100% contained by late morning.

Another small grass fire broke out near Brisbane Thursday morning underneath power lines in an area that was not impacted by the shutoffs.

"This weighs heavily on everyone including us at PG&E," the utility's CEO Bill Johnson said, referring to the widespread power shutoffs during a press conference Thursday night. "This is not how we want to serve you and this is not how we want to run our business."

As of 5 p.m., PG&E workers had restored power to 31% of those affected by the shutoffs β€” or about 228,000 customers. Approximately 510,000 remained without power and it could take days for a portion of those customers to get it back.

Josh Edelson / Getty Images

Utility officials defended the shutoff, saying that the wind speeds observed during the event, coupled with low humidity and amount of vegetation, created a severe risk of fires.

But the actions β€” and inaction β€” that led up to the decision, as well as a slew of communication issues and website glitches on the company's part, left many Californians frustrated and angry with PG&E.

"The fact that they have to do the shutdown to begin with shows how incompetent they are as a company for not maintaining their infrastructure and their equipment," 22-year-old Vinny Le told BuzzFeed News.

Le, who was diagnosed last year with chronic kidney disease, said she was lucky that her apartment in Oakland was not impacted by the power outages. If it had been she may have had trouble using her home dialysis machine.

"The possibility of losing power and also then losing access to my home dialysis machine could have an impact on my health in the long run," said Le, a student at California College of the Arts in Oakland.

Meanwhile, her girlfriend, who lives in the Sonoma area, lost power and, as a result, was unable to work.

On Wednesday, Le took an Amtrak train to Stockton, where her family lives, for routine medical appointments. She stayed there Thursday and said she may not return to the Bay Area for several days.

"I might as well just stay in Stockton while I’m here just because also I feel more of a sense of security in Stockton than in Oakland [because of the shutoffs]," Le said.

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