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2018 Woolsey Wildfire outside of Los Angeles. (Youtube)
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How Southern California Avoided A Power Outage Disaster Like PG&E

Despite putting over 100,000 people in the dark last week, Southern California Edison received little backlash

By Evan Symon, November 5, 2019 8:19 pm

Last week strong winds yet again forced electric companies to shut down power in some areas to prevent wildfires in both Southern and Northern California.

But while the Northern California shut-offs were met with more scrutiny, the shutoffs in Southern California were quiet. Despite over 100,000 in the Los Angeles and Inland Empire areas having their power cut-off for hours on end, Southern California Edison handled it all without a peep.

At the same time in Northern California 600,000 had their power shut off to a public outcry so large that Governor Gavin Newsom had to have a press conference about it.

One explanation could be how heavily forested Northern California is in comparison, but Southern California has large swaths of wooded and undeveloped area as well. Winds in Northern California were similar to the Santa Ana winds that were blowing last week. Both areas had major fires close to heavily populated areas, with the Kincade Fire burning in Sonoma County, while the Saddleridge Fire was burning celebrity homes around Los Angeles.

However, when the power companies themselves are examined, then the patterns make sense.

During fires past and present, Southern California Edison (SCE) has generally been on top of things. They have been continually updating lines and routinely clear branches and brush. More tellingly, SCE has let customers know days in advance where power outages might happen through a variety of different ways to reach all generations of customers. SCE also has more experience with wildfire mitigation, with Southern California having an upswing of wildfires in the last decade.

Even after admitting to accidentally starting fires such as the 2017 Thomas Fire and the 2018 Woolsey Fire, both of which happened to the North of Los Angeles, SCE’s honestly and early warnings that resulted in no loss of life have been credited for keeping the image of the company healthy.

Comparatively, PG&E in Northern California has not been so diligent. While there has been a brush clearing program, it was ruled to have not been large enough after the Camp Fire in 2018 destroyed thousands of homes and killed over 80 people. They also failed to alert people early, resulting in many elderly and disabled people facing dire conditions last month.

The bankruptcy of PG&E has not helped matters, as they have little money to work with in a situation where more money is demanded to save lives. This has led to a broken system where major cities like San Jose and San Francisco are proposing to leave the company, and the Governor threatening to take over the company if they don’t change.

SCE kept their standards and public relations high, PG&E simply didn’t.

“It felt like any old power outage,” said Taylor Fielder, a Los Angeles resident affected by the planned power outage last week. “We saw what it did to people up North and we were panicking a bit. But we were prepared for it. We got word days before that we might have power going off, and it wasn’t a big deal.”

But up North it was worse. Tyler Morgan, from rural Tuolumne County, has gone through power outage after power outage for over a month. “Sometimes they’ll warn you, and then sometimes not. You might know where the nearest station is so you can charge your phone, or other times they ‘forget’. I have to help take care of older people here, and it can be a nightmare with no power. And with days getting colder, it means they might not have heat.”

“We need to do something to PG&E. It’s not working.”

Going into early November, SCE is currently without any major problems while PG&E is being faced with plans that may break it up.

If anything, the last year has shown that a commitment to customers, working on improved quality, and owning up to and fixing issues caused by the company can go a long way.

Evan Symon

Evan V. Symon is the Senior Editor for the California Globe. Prior to the Globe, he reported for the Pasadena Independent, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and was head of the Personal Experiences section at Cracked. He can be reached at evan@californiaglobe.com.
Evan Symon
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