SAN FRANCISCO - The lights were back on Friday for many of the nearly 2 million Northern California residents who lost electricity when the state's largest utility switched it off this week in an effort to prevent wildfires, as the first death linked to the outages was reported — a man who relied on oxygen.
The threat of widespread outages loomed in Southern California after the winds moved to the Los Angeles area, where a wildfire fueled by strong Santa Ana winds prompted officials to order the evacuation of 100,000 people from their homes in the foothills of the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles County.
In that fire, one man went into cardiac arrest and died at the scene.
Pacific Gas & Electric Co. restored power in Northern California after workers inspected power lines to make sure it was safe to do so. The winds had increased the possibility of transmission lines toppling to the ground and starting wildfires.
The utility said 543,000 Northern California businesses and residences got their power back — but that nearly 195,000 customers were still in the dark. More than half of those who lost power in the San Francisco Bay Area had it again on Friday. The city itself was not subject to the preventive outages. Experts have said there are between two and three people for every electrical customer.
El Dorado County officials on Friday said a man dependent on oxygen died about 12 minutes after PG&E cut off power this week. Marie Aldea of Pollock Pines said her 67-year-old father Robert Mardis Sr. was asleep when the electricity went out around 3:30 a.m. Wednesday and likely couldn't wake up in time to get his back up machine, which ran on battery.
“We were all asleep, we heard my mom scream. She was crying,” she told KTXL-TV in Sacramento . “My dad went down in her arms, he was going for this oxygen machine.”
Aldea said her father's health was poor, but she doesn't understand why the utility turned off the power.
“No winds at all. And because of that, my father is gone,” she said.
PG&E spokesman Jeff Smith said the utility has not been able to confirm the report.
“It's devastating beyond words,” said Gov. Gavin Newsom. “Losing a family member is horrific and to the extent this was the reason why I hope that is investigated and I hope those responsible are held to account.”
The death was first reported by the Mountain Democrat in Placerville.
Some people in the largely rural Butte, Plumas and Yuba counties and in Northern California's wine country counties were in their third day without electricity.
Butte County is where a fire started by PG&E equipment last year decimated the town of Paradise and killed 85 people. In Napa and Sonoma counties north of San Francisco, the outages began on the two-year anniversary of deadly wildfires that killed 44 and destroyed thousands of homes.
PG&E said in a statement that employees located 11 spots where parts of its systems were damaged during the strong winds, but Smith said he could not provide damage details. That information will be in a state-mandated report the utility must give regulators within 10 business days after the outage ends.
PG&E faced hostility and second-guessing over the shut-offs, which prompted runs on supplies like coolers and generators and forced institutions to shut down.
Ryan Fisher, a partner in consumer goods and retail practice at global consultancy A.T. Kearney estimated $100 million in $200 million in fresh food was likely lost because of the outages along with $30 million a day in consumer spending.
PG&E cast the blackouts as a matter of public safety to prevent the kind of blazes that have killed scores of people over the past couple of years, destroyed thousands of homes, and ran up tens of billions of dollars in claims that drove the company into bankruptcy.
The utility suggested it was already seeing the wisdom of its decision borne out as gusts topping 77 mph (122 kph) raked some hilltops where wildfire risk was extremely high.
“We have found multiple cases of damage or hazards” caused by heavy winds, including fallen branches into overhead lines, said Sumeet Singh, a vice president for the utility.
Utility CEO Bill Johnson promised if future wind events require similar shut-offs, the utility will “do better” at communicating with customers. It's unacceptable that its website crashed, maps were inconsistent and call centers were overloaded, Johnson said.
“We were not adequately prepared,” he said.