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Power Shut-Offs Become A Way Of Life For Many Californians


Two new wildfires are raging in the grassy hills of Southern California, and tens of thousands of people are under evacuation orders. One of the fires, the Silverado Fire, may have been sparked by a piece of debris hitting a power line, according to a spokesperson for Southern California Edison.

Meanwhile, in Northern California, the utility PG&E shut down parts of its system to prevent its own power lines from sparking fires during strong winds and dry weather. That has left hundreds of thousands of people there waiting for the lights to come back on after two days in the dark. These sorts of widespread power shutoffs have become a way of life for many Californians. And as KQED's Lily Jamali reports, residents aren't happy.

LILY JAMALI, BYLINE: In the tiny community of Concow, about three hours northeast of San Francisco, Jessie Olson and her family have lived through PG&E power shutoffs not once, but twice in the last week.

JESSIE OLSON: It's not easy. It's like you're just recovering from one power outage, and then you're preparing for the next one.

JAMALI: A portable generator has helped them stay warm, keep phones charged and, for the kids, at least try to do school online.

OLSON: We also have a farm with livestock, so we have to keep the antibiotics refrigerated.

JAMALI: The Olsons survived California's deadliest and most destructive fire, the 2018 Camp Fire, but it burned down their home. It was sparked by old, poorly maintained equipment belonging to PG&E on lines that stayed active during peak fire conditions.

OLSON: And now we're all living in an RV.

JAMALI: Olson adopted her boys out of foster care. They'd been homeless before that.

OLSON: I never wanted them to have to deal with homelessness ever again. They were supposed to have a forever home, someplace where they felt safe for the rest of their lives. And now that's gone.

JAMALI: Olson calls PG&E's power shutoffs a necessary evil. Two hundred miles southeast, Terry McBride has also suffered the consequences of fire and power shutoffs. Her home in the community of Mountain Ranch was hit by a PG&E-caused fire five years ago.

TERRY MCBRIDE: Twenty-four-hundred-square-foot house to a 250-square-foot camping trailer. (Laughter) Telling you - if you didn't laugh, you'd cry.

JAMALI: She's surviving PG&E's power shutoffs in her trailer.

MCBRIDE: It's like going camping, you know? My mom's got electricity in San Andreas, so I was able to put my frozen stuff in her freezer so they don't go bad.

JAMALI: It's been tough. And while some PG&E fire survivors feel relief that the company is proactively cutting power, McBride is frustrated at the utility for neglecting its lines for years.

MCBRIDE: My feeling is, why didn't you do your job in the first place? Why are we having to go through this now?

JAMALI: PG&E has promised to make long-term fixes to its lines so power outages like these aren't a permanent way of life.

For NPR News, I'm Lily Jamali in San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lily Jamali