No crime increase amid outage, local police chiefs say

PG&E: Power restored for 64,000 Humboldt County homes

Almost all Humboldt County residents have regained power, Pacific Gas and Electric announced this morning. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal)
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Most Humboldt County residents regained power overnight Thursday as Pacific Gas and Electric, which planned the extended outage, announced in the morning that 64,000 customers had their power restored.

The outage, which went into effect shortly after midnight on Wednesday morning, affected large swaths of the county. But the power shutdown ended much faster than anticipated — early estimates projected the blackout as lasting anywhere from one to five days.

PG&E estimated on Thursday almost all Humboldt County customers had regained power, though by early afternoon some residences were still blacked out, spokesperson Megan McFarland said.

The utility expects to enact more outages in the future if conditions like temperature, humidity, wind speeds and vegetation levels create a situation ripe for wildfire. There isn’t one single factor, McFarland said.

“We understand how frustrating it is to be without power,” she said. “We are deciding between hardship and safety, and this is totally driven by safety. We don’t want more wildfires — we want our customers to be safe.”

With little notice, the outage sparked a chaotic dash among county residents for immediate resources. Many began stocking up for an uncertain amount of time without power. According to the Eureka and Arcata police departments, however, the power-out didn’t result in any significant uptick in crime.

“There was no crime increase,” said Arcata Police Chief Brian Ahearn. “It was very peaceful. I thought everybody did a great job taking care of one another.”

Eureka Police Chief Steve Watson similarly said the outage passed by without major incidents.

“There was an increase in patrolling EPD officers and other city staff, including Public Works, out there at night,” Watson said. “They were being highly visible… we stayed busy and made sure there weren’t any major problems throughout the city in this process.”

With the power out, there was an increase in alarm systems that malfunctioned throughout Eureka. Around 40 such instances resulted in false alarm police calls, Eureka Police Department spokesperson Brittany Powell said.

“A lot of times the residents will call in and say, ‘Don’t come, it’s a false alarm,’” Powell said.

One burglary did occur in Eureka during the blackout: Harris Street Market and Liquor on Harris Street reported a break-in and burglary.

Police arrived around 4:30 a.m. Thursday to find the liquor store’s front window broken. Cigarettes, lottery tickets and an undisclosed amount of cash were stolen from behind the counter.

Overall, there were three reported commercial burglaries and two vehicle burglaries during the outage — a number in line with “normal” crime statistics, Powell said. The blackout also saw five traffic collisions, which also is considered in line with city crime statistics.

All of the conditions occurred on the U.S. Highway 101 corridor through the city. By the end of the day on Wednesday, workers from Caltrans had placed barricades and flashers up onto the highway to guide drivers toward safe paths, Watson said.

PG&E cast the blackouts as a matter of public safety, aimed at preventing the kind of blazes that have killed scores of people over the past couple of years, destroyed thousands of homes, and run up tens of billions of dollars in claims that drove the company into bankruptcy.

Gov. Gavin Newsom said PG&E should have been working on making its power system sturdier and more weatherproof.

“They’re in bankruptcy due to their terrible management going back decades,” he said. “They’ve created these conditions. It was unnecessary.”

Experts say the big shut-off will yield important lessons for the next time.

Deliberate blackouts are likely to become less disruptive as PG&E gets experience managing them and rebuilds sections of the grid so that outages can be more targeted, said Michael Wara, a researcher on energy and climate policy at Stanford University.

Grids are built and operators are trained to keep the power on at all times, so the company and its employees have little experience with intentionally turning the electricity off in response to rapidly changing weather, he said.

“That’s a skill that has to be learned, and PG&E is learning it at a mass scale right now,” Wara said.

Shomik Mukherjee can be reached at 760-441-0504. The Associated Press contributed to this story. 

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