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A California Utility Has a Bold Plan to Prevent a Repeat of Last Year’s Wildfires: Cut the Power

A major utility company is trying a new way to prevent forest fires: turning off the electricity.

Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) cut power to tens of thousands of customers in northern California on Sunday as high winds, low humidity, and dry ground conditions increased the risk of wildfires. Businesses were forced to close and some school districts cancelled classes for Monday because of the planned blackout.

The affected counties were the victims of unprecedentedly damaging wildfires that swept through the state in 2017. PG&E has been blamed for billions of dollars in damages in conjunction with those fires, some of which were sparked by power lines, poles, and other malfunctioning equipment.

PG&E (PCG) spokeswoman Megan McFarland told The San Francisco Chronicle that the company “would only consider turning off power in the interest of safety and as a last resort during extreme weather conditions.” The decision to do so preemptively marks a sharp policy turn from the company, which has until now declined to use shut-offs as a preventative measure for fear that doing so would negatively affect emergency services and vulnerable populations. PG&E’s counterparts in southern California have been using preemptive power shut-offs as a tool for over a decade.

Many residents supported PG&E’s decision to proactively cut power, but some expressed frustration at the situation. A business owner in Nevada City told the Chronicle that she and others felt they were paying the price for PG&E’s failure to carry out timely and appropriate maintenance going back years.