By Elena Neale and Haneen Zain
The National Weather Service issued its first ever extreme red flag warning to Los Angeles residents late on Oct. 29 in response to anticipated hurricane-force winds in the area. The Kincade Fire in Sonoma County has blazed through more than 76,000 acres since Oct. 23. In response to the extreme fire danger, Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) temporarily turned off power to about 2.5 million people since Oct. 26.
There are four large scale wildfires burning across California at time of press — Kincade in Sonoma County, Getty in the northwest part of LA County, Tick in the Santa Clarita Valley and Easy in Simi Valley.
Cal Fire is conducting an investigation into whether a broken PG&E jumper wire started the Kincade Fire. Regardless of the cause, the fires have forced thousands to uproot their lives.
Students Grapple With Hometown Fires
For UCSC fourth-year Mariah Gehring, the Kincade Fire marks the second time in two years her family has had to evacuate their home in Santa Rosa, the first being during the Tubbs Fire in October 2017.
Her family was told to evacuate on Oct. 27, but they have remained in their house at time of press.
“It’s causing a lot of friction between my mom, dad and sister,” Gehring said. “‘Should we go? Should we not go?’ My dad’s like ‘No, we should stay here for now.’ […] In a way, it brings everyone together because this is really the only thing you can think about, but in another way there’s a lot of really pressing decisions and conversations that need to be had and everyone kind of feels a different way in my family right now.”
It’s difficult to be in Santa Cruz when so much is going on at home, Gehring said. Cabrillo College student Ava Scura expressed a similar sentiment. Scura is from Sebastopol, a city about seven miles away from Santa Rosa in Sonoma County.
Scura was at home with her family during the Tubbs Fire, but she’s been in Santa Cruz since the start of the Kincade Fire, creating a disconnect between her and her hometown.
“To think that your home might be gone, or the place you grew up in will not be the same for another 20 years. […] A fire totally sets back the community and makes the landscape totally different,” Scura said. “I really am totally in love with my hometown and my home and it’s just super freaky to think that it could go away for a little bit.”
Students in similar situations to Gehring and Scura have had to balance school, work and other day to day obligations, sometimes without power, while their families are in the path of wildfires.
“There’s been pretty much zero acknowledgment [from UCSC] and it’s been kind of on us to reach out to our professors about how this is affecting us,” Gehring said. “It just feels like their main motive is protecting campus or whatever, and not really caring about this that’s going on. If your house is in danger, you can’t think of anything else beyond that.”
While the end of this round of power outages means a return to normalcy for many, students whose homes border fires are still in a state of limbo.
The Kincade Fire is 45 percent contained at time of press. It’s uncertain how long the fire will continue burning or how many people will be displaced.
“I still have my smoke mask from two years ago, and I put it in my drawer because I didn’t think I’d have to use it and now I’m like, ‘What if I’m gonna need to go and use it?’” Gehring said. “It just feels so surreal and heartbreaking.”
PG&E Conducts Second Round of Power Shutoffs
In response to high winds and other prime wildfire conditions throughout the Bay Area, PG&E initiated its second Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) of the month on Oct. 24. Santa Cruz residents began losing power around 8 p.m on Oct. 26.
The PSPS was the largest planned power outage in California history. The outage, which began Saturday night in Santa Cruz and ended Monday afternoon, affected 46,000 residents, about 71 percent of the city’s total population.
PG&E’s equipment was found to have caused past fires such as the 2017 Tubbs Fire and the 2018 Camp Fire, both of which arose in similar weather conditions to the Kincade Fire.
Santa Cruz resident Bob Lewis sat in his truck outside the makeshift PG&E community center at Costco on Sunday. He was affected by both October power outages, and purchased a $500 generator to run his Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine at night. A CPAP machine eases breathing problems caused by sleep apnea.
“I had no power last time and there was no reason to do it because there was no wind,” Lewis said. “This time there was wind. […] The point is all the infrastructure that should’ve been worked on has instead been neglected.”
PG&E equipment failure sparked about 1,500 California fires between 2014 and 2017, leading to damage claims surmounting $30 billion.
The company said it’s invested in upgrading its infrastructure in high risk locations, but doing so will take time.
“We have inspected our equipment, the transmission towers and distribution lines. However, the risk of wildfire is still there and it is not an easy fix,” said PG&E spokesperson Mayra Tostado. “It’s a decision that’s hard on both sides. Do we keep the power on and not do anything about wildfire risk? Or do we turn the power off in areas where we know it’s likely we may see strong adverse conditions that would elevate the risk of wildfire?”
On Oct. 14, California Governor Gavin Newsom demanded PG&E compensate customers for the mismanagement of the first round of PSPSs earlier this month. Tostado said the company will not provide compensation to customers since the power outages occurred in response to weather and not equipment failure.
However, in a statement released on Oct. 29, PG&E CEO and President Bill Johnson announced a one time bill credit to customers affected by the Oct. 9 power outage. Residents and small businesses will be compensated $100 and $250, respectively.
The credit will appear as a “customer satisfaction adjustment” in the next billing cycle. According to Johnson, customers do not need to apply to receive credit. It will automatically be placed on their account. Funding for reimbursements will come from company shareholders.
“We recognize the hardship caused by Public Safety Power Shutoffs in general and how those hardships were exacerbated by our website and call center communications issues related to the Oct. 9 PSPS event that impacted 738,000 customers,” Johnson said in an official statement. “We are constantly working to execute these safety shutoffs more effectively while prioritizing public safety.”
PG&E said in a statement they will not compensate customers for the Oct. 26 outages since website and communication problems were no longer an issue.
If the climate crisis continues at the rate it’s headed, regular power outages are likely to be the new normal in California during the wildfire season.
“It’s been pretty hard because I look on the news […] and all it is is really triggering images that make it really hard to be away from [home],” said UCSC fourth-year Mariah Gehring. “And just dealing with this weird, apocalyptic sense of, like a stationary space in time between me and all my friends, it’s very unsettling.”
Additional reporting by Julian Barragan, Alex Dodd and Gillian McFerren.