Nearly One Year After Camp Fire, PG&E’s Power Shutoffs Face Skepticism in Butte County

PG&E announced Tuesday it would preemptively shut off power across Northern California due to high fire risk. That has drawn criticism from some residents in Butte County. (Stephanie Lister/KQED)

At the tail end of the Paradise Town Council meeting on Tuesday night, Town Manager Lauren Gill shared a warning with the crowd: Traffic signals in the town would go dark due to PG&E's plan to shut off power for nearly 30,000 customers in Butte County.

“Traffic signals in town will blink for a few hours, then go dark at some point,” Gill said. “We are looking for a solution that will keep the signals on longer, but for now we do not have that.”

The power outages in parts of Butte County, which went into effect around midnight last night, have stirred up anxiety, fear and anger from many in the area. With the one-year anniversary of the deadly Camp Fire one month away, those feelings are particularly acute.

The Power Shutoffs
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“The feedback I've gotten from a few individuals during the power shutoffs is that they understand cognitively that it's an issue that needs to be resolved as far as safety for the public, but because some of them have been through the horrific experience during the Camp Fire and they cite PG&E as the root cause, they have some resulting anger,” said Eric Eckhart, who works as a fire recovery counselor for the Butte County Office of Education.

The power shutoffs across Butte County are part of a series of massive power shutoffs PG&E initiated for over 500,000 customers early Wednesday morning across Northern and Central California. With high winds and low humidity, weather conditions are ripe for another large wildfire. Preemptive power shutoffs are supposed to decrease the risk of electrical equipment sparking a fire like the one in Paradise last November. It's a move that county residents have mixed feelings about.

Back in May, a Cal Fire investigation found that issues with PG&E transmission lines caused the massive fire last year, which killed 85 people, destroyed 14,000 homes and decimated the town of Paradise. That has eroded the trust between some residents and the utility.

“There’s such a mistrust now,” said Valerie Cross, who lives in Oroville. “PG&E took away our power — literally and figuratively. And that creates anxiety. When you feel a loss of control, a loss of ability to do something, a fear of what’s going to happen next.”

And that mistrust has spawned rumors and misinformation among residents about when the shutoffs are happening and how long they’ll last. Meanwhile, others are frustrated that PG&E didn’t do power shutoffs like this before the Camp Fire.

“I'm not happy,” said Paradise resident Stacy Pineda. “I don't understand why it is that they failed to shut off the power on Nov. 8 and why now in their 'success' are pulling so many days in a row.”

According to PG&E, the shutoffs could last for several days because the utility needs time to do safety checks and ensure no lines were damaged during the high fire risk weather event.

While Pineda knows the shutoffs can help prevent fires like the one that destroyed her hometown, “there's got to be some middle ground. We can't lose everything that's in our refrigerators every time there's a danger. They need to upgrade and repair their systems to where it's safe enough to operate,” she said.

PG&E is in the process of putting their electric distribution power lines in Paradise underground. The utility is also working on a state-mandated wildfire mitigation plan, which aims to cut down on the potential of igniting a fire during high-risk periods. That plan includes preemptive power shutoffs.

"It's really kind of a no win situation. It's very inconvenient for people. There's the potential loss of food and there are people who depend on their medical equipment that needs to be plugged in. But on the other side, if it can prevent some other town from burning up like we did, then it's worth it," said Paradise Mayor Jody Jones.
"It's really kind of a no-win situation. It's very inconvenient for people. There's the potential loss of food, and there are people who depend on their medical equipment that needs to be plugged in. But on the other side, if it can prevent some other town from burning up like we did, then it's worth it," said Paradise Mayor Jody Jones. (Stephanie Lister/KQED)

“We understand this has a huge effect on peoples’ lives and we are only doing this to keep everybody safe,” said PG&E spokesperson Tracy Lopez. “This is a proactive measure and one that we believe needs to be taken to make sure everybody is safe.”

This week marks the third time this year PG&E has performed a public safety power shutoff for parts of Butte County.

“They're beginning to seem like the new normal,” said Paradise Mayor Jody Jones. “It's really kind of a no-win situation. It's very inconvenient for people. There's the potential loss of food and there are people who depend on their medical equipment that needs to be plugged in. But on the other side, if it can prevent some other town from burning up like we did, then it's worth it.”

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