The Haves and Have-Nots of Electricity in California

PARADISE, CA - The intentional blackout by California’s largest utility this week put Forest Jones out of work and his son out of school. On Friday morning Mr. Jones, a handyman and single father, sat in his apartment above a tattoo parlor waiting for the power to come back on and for school to reopen.

“I’ll probably lose $400 or $500 dollars because of this,” said Mr. Jones, who lives in the town of Paradise, which was razed by fire last year and is slowly rebuilding. “Things have been really tough up here.”

Millions of people were affected by the blackout, which spanned the outskirts of Silicon Valley to the forests of Humboldt County near the Oregon border. But the outage, which the power company said was necessary to prevent wildfires, also drew a line between those who were merely inconvenienced and those who faced a major financial hardship.

To have the lights on, the television running and kitchen appliances humming is often taken for granted in America. During California’s blackout it became an economic privilege.

The economic impacts of the shut-off were especially acute in rural, northern towns like Paradise, where incomes are a fraction of those in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Both wealthy and poorer areas were affected by the blackout but interviews across the state suggested that being forced off the grid disproportionately hurt the less affluent. One family in Humboldt County said they had spent $150 on batteries and water alone during the shutdown.

“To be prepared costs money,” Sue Warhaftig, a massage therapist who lives in Mill Valley, a wealthy suburb across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. Ms. Warhaftig spent around two days without electricity but said she had been spared from significant sacrifices during the blackout.

She invested in a generator to keep the refrigerator running and to provide some light. She cooked in the family’s Volkswagen camper van in her driveway. At night she watched Netflix on her phone, which she was able to charge with the generator. Her husband, a businessman, is in London on a work trip. Her two sons, both grown, live in Southern California and Seattle.

“We were inconvenienced but life wasn’t interrupted,” Ms. Warhaftig said. “But so many people’s lives were.

Pacific Gas & Electric restored power to large sections of Northern California on Friday, including Paradise, where the electricity came back on in the afternoon. But hundreds of thousands of people in other areas remained in the dark. The carcasses of burned cars still littered the landscape around Paradise, where 86 people died in the Camp Fire last year, some of them while trying to escape.

Officials at power company said that by Saturday they hoped to have restored power to 98 percent of the customers who were affected.

The same dangerous winds that spurred the shut-off in Northern California have put firefighters to work in the south. The authorities in Los Angeles County ordered the evacuation of nearly 100,000 people on Friday as the Saddleridge Fire burned nearly 5,000 acres and destroyed 25 structures. The Sandalwood Fire, which ignited Thursday in Riverside County, had spread to more than 800 acres and destroyed 74 structures by Friday afternoon.

While this week’s outage was the first time many customers in Northern California experienced a deliberate power shut-off, residents in and around Paradise have had their power cut four times in recent months, residents say.

Many use a generator, but running one has become increasingly expensive with gasoline now at more than $4 a gallon in California.

On Friday, Dennis and Viola Timmer drove up the hill to their home in Magalia, a town adjacent to Paradise, loaded with $102 dollars of gasoline for their generators. It was their second gasoline run since the power went out Tuesday night.

The couple, retired and on a fixed income after Mr. Timmer’s time in the Navy and in construction, said the power outage had severely limited their ability to do essential tasks like cooking, or to leave the house.

“You know what it feels like? You’re in jail,” said Ms. Timmer, 72. “You can’t go anywhere with the generators running.”

Since the generators are not powerful enough to run heat or air conditioning, the couple slept in their den with an electric space heater.

“It’s really difficult because you don’t have a normal life,” Ms. Timmer said. “You’re trying to survive.”

To be sure, the shutdown has affected many people regardless of economic status. The areas without power were as diverse as the wealthy suburbs of Silicon Valley, the old Gold Rush towns of the Sierra Nevada, the East Bay of San Francisco and the seaside city of Arcata.

Ms. Cahn’s cellphone ran out of power during the blackout and even when she managed to recharge it in her car cell service was spotty, as it was in many areas hit by the blackout.

Accustomed to staying warm at night with an electric blanket, Ms. Cahn slept under a stack of four blankets.

“I’m doing what I have to do which is not doing very much,” she said.

Further south in Marin City, Chanay Jackson stood surrounded by fumes from generators still powering parts of the city.

She said that food stamps were issued on the first of the month and that many residents who had to throw away food were out of luck.

“They’re not going to issue more food stamps just because the power went out,” Ms. Jackson said. “So they’re just screwed until next month.”

Strong winds have many times in the past caused power lines to come in contact with vegetation, igniting fires that are then propelled by the gusts. This was the case with the Camp Fire.

Since higher elevations had more extreme winds many of the neighborhoods where power was turned off this week were in hills and canyons, including in the Sierra Nevada.

The shut-off, which by one estimate affected a total of 2.5 million people, has come under strong criticism by residents and politicians. The company’s website crashed just as customers sought information about the outage. Gov. Gavin Newsom called it unacceptable. But his comments were nuanced, criticizing the way the shut-off was handled, not the rationale for it. Mr. Newsom and others said the ravages of the Camp Fire demanded preventive action to prevent a reoccurrence.

Yet the calculus of trying to avoid deadly fires by shutting off power will continue to be debated as California enters its peak wildfire season.

In the city of Grass Valley, Matthew Gottschalk said he and his wife realized that a generator was essential when they calculated that they had around $500 worth of food in their fridge.

“I don’t know what we would have done,” said Mr. Gottschalk, whose power went out Tuesday night.

His neighbors are filling coolers with ice. Everyone is hoping the power will come back on soon.

“Ice is going to run out and gas is going to run out,” he said.


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