Let’s take a look back at the power shutoffs that have been taking place around the state in hopes of preventing wildfires.
First, read my brilliant colleague Susie Cagle for some background on what exactly is going on with these power outages:
Long story short, California’s utility companies – in particular, Pacific Gas and Electric, the country’s largest investor-owned utility – have a history of sparking wildfires. They have decided to shut off power during high-fire weather in regions with high-fire risk.
These outages got national attention this month when they hit the Bay Area. Fair enough – there’s an irony in the tech-rich Silicon Valley and generally actually dollar-rich Wine Country existing without electricity. But there’s been talk that these outages affect only the privileged, and that’s just wrong. And that’s why I’m making all of you sit through this blog post.
Yes, California is the fifth largest economy in the world. Yes, new tech millionaires do street-park their Teslas and flaunt their wealth like it will never run out. But the Bay Area is only a small portion of the shutoff zones. And there were a number of previous outages that occurred around the state before the two massive ones that drew national attention this month.
In Butte county, one of the regions most affected by both wildfires and the power outages, the per capita income is $26,000. This was the county that was hit hard by the 2018 Camp Fire, and here, 18.1% live in poverty.
In Lake county, which was hit hard by the Valley Fire in 2015, the per capita income is $23,000. Here, 20.2% live in poverty.
“Not everybody can go out and get a generator,” 59-year-old Deanne Mediati told me in an interview earlier this month. “They’re expensive. These are the easy solutions everybody has, but until you’ve lived it, shut your mouth.”
Mediati lives in Grass Valley, where the per capita income is $27,000 and 26.3% live in poverty. She also has hypoxia, and each power outage means she has to use oxygen tanks instead of an oxygen concentrator – a costly expense.
So let this be a reminder that these outages definitely don’t just affect the privileged. “There’s kind of this myth that disasters affect everyone and they’re this great equalizer and that’s just absolutely not true,” said Samantha Montano, an assistant professor of emergency management and disaster science at the University of Nebraska Omaha – and in the case of the shutoffs, people with disabilities and lower income suffered the most.
“If you’re middle class and have money in the bank, losing a refrigerator worth of food isn’t great, but you can go out and replace that and be ok,” Montano said. “But a family living paycheck to paycheck, they’re going to be struggling to be able to replace that food that is lost. That is another example where we’re seeing a disproportional impact.”