Utilities' liability can reach billions of dollars, and after several years of devastating wildfires, they asked regulators to allow them to pull the plug when fire risk is extremely high. That's mainly during periods of excessive winds and low humidity when vegetation is dried out and can easily ignite.
The plans could inconvenience hundreds of thousands of customers while endangering some who depend on electricity to keep them alive, like 56-year-old Kallithea Miller.
Although she lives far from wildfire danger near a shopping mall in
"I could die in my sleep," she said. "It's scaring the hell out of me."
The precautionary outages could mean multiday blackouts for cities as large as
"I know it inconveniences people, but it's a small price to pay for not having the kind of devastation that we had in
Utility equipment has been blamed for many of
"We're worried about it because we could see people's power shut off not for a day or two but potentially a week," Gov.
The elderly, people with disabilities and language barriers, and poorer residents in remote areas with limited transportation or communication are also at greater risk. Cellphone networks can fail, computers and internet phone lines won't work, traffic signals go dark and there can be problems with communication systems, water treatment facilities and emergency services.
Utility representatives said they are doing their best to work with emergency responders and community groups to warn vulnerable customers, as the
"What the PUC can do is basically lay out the expectations for what the utilities need to do. Where the rubber meets the road is how the utilities operationalize, particularly on the notification," said
The option to pull the plug isn't new, though state officials expect it to be used much more frequently.
Once power is shut off, the utilities must inspect every de-energized line before they restore power, a process that can keep the lights out for days even after conditions improve.
He cited poor communication, which utility representatives said they are working to improve, but praised
"They're damned if they do, and damned if they don't," Canning said. "There's only so much we can do as a city to protect you. Individual residents have to be prepared."
Miller said her backup plan is a cat named Mojo who instinctively paws at her face whenever she stops breathing.
"It puts us in a dangerous situation and a stressful situation," she said. "If they have a blackout that lasts for five days, I'm screwed."