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Millions of PG&E Customers Lose Power


Hundreds of thousands of people are without power in northern and central California today. The biggest utility in the state, Pacific Gas & Electric, started turning the power off last night on purpose. It's part of an effort to combat what they're calling an unprecedented wildfire danger. Lily Jamali is a host and correspondent at NPR's member station KQED in San Francisco, and she is following this story for us. Lily, so PG&E says this is about fire prevention. Explain that connection. I mean, how do they justify such a huge outage?

LILY JAMALI, BYLINE: Well, this is a step that they say they need to take to prevent their equipment from sparking another major wildfire. And important to note that we are really at the peak of fire season out here in California right now, so that's very much top of mind for PG&E officials, for people like Governor Gavin Newsom and other local officials that are dealing with this on the ground. But for context, we saw PG&E equipment cause a couple of fires over the last two years in 2017 and notably in 2018, last year's Camp Fire...

MARTIN: Right.

JAMALI: ...Which took place in Paradise and surrounding areas. And PG&E, you know, really, from the beginning was very open about the fact that they were at fault there, and they don't want that to happen again.

MARTIN: Do you have a grip on exactly how many people have been affected by the outage? Are there going to be more?

JAMALI: Yeah. Well, PG&E is saying that this is ultimately going to affect as many as 800,000 customers. That doesn't mean it's 800,000 people. The actual number of people affected by these outages could be much higher, well into the millions, because...

MARTIN: Because it's just a household.

JAMALI: ...One customer is basically a meter.

MARTIN: Oh, got it.

JAMALI: Exactly. And so we're looking at this being spread across 34 counties. This is unprecedented, and a shut-off of this scale is something that we haven't seen. And they are doing this in phases. So at midnight, overnight, we saw phase one start, and that affected parts of wine country - Napa and Sonoma counties - and also Butte County, which is where Paradise is located. So, you know, I think that that is sort of a triggering event for a lot of people who have already lost so much...

MARTIN: Right.

JAMALI: ...In wildfires out here in California. Phase two starts at noon, local time, and that's where we'll see potentially some major urban areas affected. That could include Oakland. It may include San Jose. And then we're looking at the possibility of more southern reaches of PG&E's territory down in Kern County. That's where Bakersfield is. That may come later. That's still under consideration.

MARTIN: Wow. Presumably, customers had a heads-up that this was going to happen, right? I mean, what kind of preventative steps did they take?

JAMALI: Yeah. I mean, PG&E has done what it can to give people notice. One of the issues that they've run into is that their website has been down for much of the last 24 hours, and that's really kind of clogged the channels of communication. So they - I think most people are relying right now on local media, and if they're familiar with Twitter, the updates tend to make it to Twitter, but the actual website has been a real problem in terms of telling people what to do.

But I know that people are doing things like filling up their gas tanks. There were some pretty intense lines at gas tanks in the East Bay here in the Bay Area yesterday afternoon. People are trying to make sure their phones are charged. They're buying ice so they can make sure that their food doesn't spoil. You know, you kind of need to make sure you keep your refrigerator and freezer doors closed to minimize the impact on things like that. And I think people are also checking in on each other and just making sure that this information, if it doesn't make it through these mass channels, is happening one-on-one.

MARTIN: All right. Lily Jamali with our member station KQED in the Bay Area. Thank you so much for sharing your reporting on this.

JAMALI: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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