With firefighters getting the upper hand on fires erupting alongside the 14 Freeway near Santa Clarita, and outbreaks in Castaic up the road apiece, along neighboring Interstate 5, I headed north at around 2 o’clock Saturday morning to visit with my son, daughter-in-law and two adorable grandkids who live in a quiet little community about 30 miles east of Sacramento.
I knew some parts of Northern California also were ablaze a few days prior to my arrival, and they were still burning when I got there. In fact, the major fire, the now 76,825-acre Kincaid Fire in Sonoma County, was only 30 percent contained by Wednesday morning. Thankfully, neither that nor the much smaller Burris and Sky fires were raging near my family’s home.
So, with an aversion to flying, I decided to simply get in my car and make the trip in the early morning hours. I’ve done this numerous times in the years since the kids moved up there after getting married. Plus, it was my son’s birthday, reason enough to drive up to see him, his brave and brilliant spouse and their darling little ones, one 4, the other just 10 months old.
Rolling into Sacramento shortly after sunrise, other drivers and I were greeted by hazy sunshine and lighted signs positioned alongside the 5 and 50 freeways: “Traffic light not working? Treat it like a stop sign,” they read. What in the world did that mean? Then I remembered what Ted, my son, had told me: In essence, publicly traded utility Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E) was unable to repair or replace its aging electrical system in time for fire season and decided to simply turn off the juice in huge swaths of its enormous service area until the Diablo winds (meteorological cousins of our Santa Anas) had subsided. The result was up to a million or more people going without streetlights and traffic lights, as well as home lighting, air conditioning, refrigerators, security systems, medical equipment, TVs, computers, gasoline and other essentials for days at a time.
As of Wednesday, the Cal Fire incident map reported there were four active wildfires being monitored by the state fire agency, the latest one breaking out early that morning in Simi Valley, near the Reagan Library. At 9 a.m. Wednesday, that fire was listed at 200-acres. The map also showed several wildfires being fought by local agencies not monitored by the agency, one of those the 650-acre Getty Fire being battled in the hills above the Sepulveda Pass.
The Tick Fire in northern Los Angeles County burned 4,615 acres, forcing 50,000 people to evacuate their homes last Thursday. Firefighters were still battling that blaze on Wednesday.
The Saddle Ridge Fire, also in Los Angeles, burned nearly 8,800 acres and had forced 100,000 people to evacuate since breaking out Oct. 10.
Up north, along with fire, people were forced to endure what appeared to be a scattershot approach taken by PG&E to initiating power outages. Having lived through part of one of those events on Saturday and Sunday, I can tell you that it was a harrowing experience.
The blackout was perhaps even more unnerving than the fires; deprived of basic electrical service at a time of great need. It seemed as though PG&E was going to get you if the fire failed to do so.
Blackouts were also implemented by So Cal Edison in various counties in its own expansive service area, but at first only in spots hit by fire or in danger of being set ablaze, impacting tens of thousands of people, not hundreds of thousands or a million at a time. On Wednesday that changed, with the utility warning it could shut off power to 304,000 customers, CBS News reported.
Many people may not know this, but on Jan. 29, The New York Times reported, PG&E filed for bankruptcy protection to address up to $30 billion in liabilities stemming from deadly fires in Northern Cal in 2017 and 2018. On Oct. 9, a federal bankruptcy judge refused to allow PG&E to exclusively pitch a reorganization plan in court, “escalating an already heated battle over the largest utility bankruptcy in US history,” reported Bloomberg News.
Likely with an eye toward further limiting its liability, the utility, which had already turned off power to large numbers of people and businesses, cut power in 36 counties Saturday, ultimately affecting nearly 1 million customers.
Needless to say, I had much on my mind on the way home last Sunday. I’m hoping there will be some accounting for the all the anxiety PG&E caused. Then again, it was pretty windy, and maybe one of the power outages prevented a wildfire in my son’s neighborhood. We’ll never know. What I do know is I am happy my family is safe.