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Opinion

Editorial: Don’t just blame PG&E for the Northern California blackouts. It’s everyone’s fault

Camp fire
To prevent its power lines from triggering wildfires like the Camp fire that raged through the town of Paradise, Calif., last November, Pacific Gas & Electric is shutting off power temporarily ahead of strong Diablo winds.
(Neal Waters / Zuma Press)

Millions of Californians lost power Wednesday in the first large-scale exercise of one of the state’s new wildfire-fighting tools: allowing utilities to shut down power lines proactively so they can’t spark fires.

Most of the people affected by the blackouts are in Northern California, where strong Diablo winds have been forecast, raising the threat of wildfires from downed or malfunctioning Pacific Gas & Electric lines. But Southern California Edison warned that some customers in its Southern California services areas, including Los Angeles County, might have their power cut as well. And about 30,000 customers were without power in San Diego County.

Millions of Californians could spend days without power as the state’s largest utility continues shutting off electricity in a desperate attempt to avoid wildfires sparked by windblown power lines.

The blackouts have been challenging, to be sure, disrupting lives, snarling traffic, making communications more difficult and potentially endangering vulnerable Californians. Public schools and universities in affected areas shut down for the day. Anxieties have been exacerbated by the lack of concrete details about when and where the blackouts will occur, and when the power might return. And things might get worse before they get better.

The experience has many people shaking their fists at PG&E, the utility that Californians love to hate. The way many people see it, this is a crisis created entirely by a financially and morally bankrupt utility whose penny-pinching on maintenance opened the door to the catastrophic fires that razed neighborhoods and killed dozens of people. And now the utility, it seems, is inflicting misery on millions of Californians just to avoid incurring more fire liability.

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Certainly, the state’s largest utility must be held to account for its negligence and its failure to maintain the far-flung lines that have sparked so many fires. So, too, can it be faulted for giving customers in the blackout areas insufficient notice and shutting off power well before the big winds blew in. But it’s not fair to lay our current predicament entirely at its feet. This bitter meal has been years in the making by many cooks.

It wasn’t PG&E officials who approved housing developments in high-risk areas. In fact, the utility can’t say no to serving those homes, no matter how great the fire risk. The utility also doesn’t make decisions about how the vegetation around their customers’ houses and the forests nearby are managed. Nor is it the utility’s fault that human-caused climate change has created conditions that fuel massive wildfires. That’s a disgrace we all own.

Besides, as disruptive as these outages are, they may save lives. Gov. Gavin Newsom acknowledged as much, even as he said Californians “should be outraged” by them.

Of course Californians must not accept blackouts as the new normal every time the winds blow. But until we make the changes in land use and fire safety needed to ensure that utility lines won’t trigger the sort of devastation that leveled the town of Paradise last year, power shutdowns will be our collective cross to bear.


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