Author(s): Michele Steinberg. Published on January 1, 2020.

Ready Or Not

What the deliberate power outages in California say about our wildfire planning, preparation, and resiliency 


As I write, autumn wildfires are raging throughout California. While these destructive events are nothing new, there is an unusual wrinkle this year—deliberate large-scale power outages.

Citing strong winds and dry conditions, utility giant Pacific Gas & Electric shut off power to 800,000 customers for several days in October to prevent sparking power lines from igniting dry vegetation. PG&E had good reason for concern: it had been found responsible for sparking 16 wildfires in 2017 alone. However, the realities of the plan, officially dubbed “Public Safety Power Shutoff,” took most California residents and business owners by surprise, and left many of us looking on from afar dumbfounded. Was this extreme action really necessary?

Shutting off power to an estimated 2.5 million people for days at a time wasn’t merely inconvenient, but was also life-threatening. One person died after power was cut to the oxygen machine he needed to survive (a coroner later ruled, however, that the death was unrelated to the shut off). The food aid organization Meals on Wheels also reported that its operations were hampered by the outages, and expressed concern that the loss of power could endanger vulnerable seniors. The outages left other residents in the region frightened, frustrated, and angry.

While it’s too early to know whether the electricity shutoff had any impact on preventing wildfires, what the move did reveal is the woeful lack of investment and preparation over the years by PG&E and state regulators. But if they want an example of what good planning and investment looks like, they don’t have to look very far.

In 2007, a firestorm called the Witch Fire killed 10 people, injured nearly 100, and caused more than $1 billion in damage in San Diego. In the decade that followed, the local utility, San Diego Gas & Electric, invested in modernizing its power grid to reduce fire risk. According to the Santa Cruz Sentinel, the utility has buried 10,000 miles of power lines, replaced thousands of wooden poles with steel structures, insulated power lines, and installed more than 100 fire-spotting cameras on mountaintops. While SDG&E occasionally cuts power to customers as a fire precaution during extreme weather, the company has over time sectionalized its power grid, allowing it to be more surgical in its actions—cutting power for just a few dozen homes in the most dangerous areas rather than subjecting thousands to a blackout. As a result, SDG&E cut power to fewer than 2 percent of its customers during the October windstorms, while about 15 percent of PG&E customers had the lights intentionally turned off, according to reports.

The contrast between what happened in San Diego versus the rest of California shows the obvious benefits of long-term planning and preparation. It also serves as a reminder for all of us to take a hard look at our own home and business disaster plans. Having a plan before the lights go out and before the fire is approaching is the first step toward resiliency for individuals, communities, and governments. On the regional level, policymakers must prioritize the reliability of our nation’s aging infrastructure and hold companies and regulatory agencies accountable for investing in the safety of customers and constituents.

While there is clearly much work to be done at PG&E, the utility is taking steps in the right direction. After the 2017 fire season, PG&E initiated a broad-ranging wildfire safety program and has vowed to make much-needed investments, such as burying some of its power lines.

As we’ve seen time and again, being late to plan and invest in safety can have devastating consequences. For PG&E, though, the old adage appears to apply: better late than never.


Michele Steinberg is director of the wildfire division at NFPA. Illustration: Michael Hoeweler