In the last hours before power was scheduled to go out over large swaths of the Bay Area where I live, the mood was eerie, disciplined and uneasy. In Berkeley, one CVS was out of batteries and I know it wasn’t the only one. REI had been sold out of solar lanterns for nearly a day, and, in some caricature of early 21st century hipsterdom, two 40-something men in goatees were fighting over a remaining $450 YETI cooler. The eye doctor and the notary were still open for business, but the burger place was shut. A lone handyman drilled in the front yard of one house before unplugging, as the neighborhood fell silent.
People emailed each other nervously, googled how fast things might spoil, delivered food to friends who were still inside the power-on zone. A chef we know drove a load of meat across town to another friend with a freezer who maps showed would still be connected to the grid. Some people, working the long hours and gig jobs the Bay Area requires, barely had time to prepare. Those who did have time cleaned their houses, bought headlamps and batteries, charged up everything they could, and ran one last load of laundry. Setting out their solar charging stations, they got ready to weather the storm.
Except it wasn’t a storm exactly, just the threat of one. These are seasonal winds. Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) kept changing the time the outages would start. Our power hung on for a while, and then longer, while our neighbors wait. In fact, the state waits, at the mercy of winds that will stir up and settle again until our rains come mid-November. What does it mean to weather a threat that will come and go for six weeks each year? The day had a surreal feeling about it: Despite reading about danger some of us felt no winds at all. While PG&E, our utility, has announced that 800,000 households in 35 counties across California will be taken off power for up to five days as a preventative measure against fire, no one seems to know whose power will go out or for how long, or if this kind of action is meant to be the new normal.
For now, the shutoff has felt remarkably haphazard. Half the people I talked to in the last two days had no idea if they personally would be affected. People prepared for outages and then nothing happened, while others felt suddenly stranded. Wednesday night about 7 p.m., the San Francisco Chronicle reported that PG&E had launched a new website and almost immediately then reported that the website didn’t work. Government and newspaper maps lack granular details. On Tuesday, the PG&E website crashed frequently, and when it did work, its outage maps were practically illegible, huge yellow swaths doodled over the map of California in loopy highlighter pen. “It looks like Donald Trump predicting the weather,” said someone at my local PTA meeting in a reference to “Sharpiegate,” and everyone laughed.
Underneath our laughter and irritation, though, I still felt a kind of disciplined sobriety, the focused feeling of gathering that you might feel on the East Coast before a hurricane hits. People might be irritated at PG&E for what seems an extreme measure, or for its remarkably poor messaging, but everybody also knows that in this season, fire danger is real. Just as people who lived through September 11 recognize a certain brilliance and heat in that season’s weather, we in California have begun to associate hot Octobers with our own dread. After two consecutive years of devastating fires, suffocating smoke, and dislocations, I’d guess we’d rather have a disorganized shut-off than a state in flames.
We also fully recognize that in a changing climate our fires have gotten worse. Years ago, I might have thought of October as a month of shopping for pumpkins and Halloween gear. This year, we dutifully checked our supply of air masks, canned chili, checking off the emergency rations we call the “apocalypse box.” It’s not really a joke: We live downwind of a refinery. We have elaborate plans for how to get out if the wrong spark blew our way. Even sitting to write this, I remember how, during the past two years, I reported from the midst of smoke. Frankly, I’m happier to report for now that my biggest problem is that this week I won’t have as much access to Twitter.
One bigger question, of course, is not about this moment of vigilance, but about the sustainability of getting Californians through this season this year and for years to come. PG&E seems not to have either good options or good communication. Nor is it really the only source of a fire in a hot wind like this one. Our state is a fire zone each October, we live in a flawed grid. PG&E really should be burying all our power wires, so they can’t spark in weather like this. Perhaps the state should own the utility.
Whether and when that kind of structural change can come, and how we are going to be able to manage continuing to have power that safely serves California is a much longer question, one that most of us, in our flurry to survive, haven’t been considering yet. What it means year after year to be managing our resources in a changing climate also continues to shift. Last year, during the smoke, I wrote about the strangeness of watching climate change arrive, to our houses, to our bodies, to our children. This year, perhaps not coincidentally, I gave up driving my kids to school, and bought a cargo bike instead.
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Whether any of us are able to change our patterns fast enough remains to be seen. We must keep changing, we must keep talking about how to change, but in the meantime, as these hot winds blow, most of us just scramble to get ready. In the scramble, each thing I touch that relies on power seems newly precious – a reminder (even in fire season) of how dependent we are on the simple human technology of fire. In assembling our apocalypse boxes, many of us also drove home past the encampments where many people in California are already living, constantly, without power, with a few gadgets hooked up to the sun. “I’m getting ready to tell some ghost stories,” called a neighbor, who seemed determined to be cheerful about the outages. But for many of us, the uncertain future is already in our midst.