HEALDSBURG, Calif. – Ryan Schmaltz raced in his Ford F-150 down Highway 101 two weeks ago during the first set of rolling blackouts here to pick up the only industrial generator available within 60 miles.
Without it, the winemaker risked losing 160 tons of fruit, much of it zinfandel. He couldn’t cool the grapes to temperature with glycol or mix the wine in tanks of up to 3,700 gallons. At the height of the winemaking season, the family-owned winery would be paralyzed.
But now, as yet another blackout rolls through Sonoma County, he needs to fire up the generator again. He is worried he won’t know how to operate such a complicated machine. So he called an electrician.
“We just can’t wait, and we know it’s gonna happen again,” Schmaltz said in an interview inside a 7,000-square-foot storage cave, one of the only places at Bella Winery where it was safe to breathe without an air mask as new fires raged a few miles away.
For this tightknit community in the heart of wine country, parts of which were devastated by the deadly and destructive Tubbs fire in 2017, rolling blackouts are becoming a new way of life. Electricity – a basic necessity for keeping food fresh, medical devices running, businesses operating and children in school – is being cut unexpectedly in an effort to limit wildfires.
It’s not just Sonoma. Millions of residents across California, including in the major San Francisco metro areas, were expected to lose power this weekend in a record event as power utility company Pacific Gas & Electric cut services in what it said was an effort to prevent fires – a new normal its executives have said could continue for a decade.
This weekend alone, parts of Northern California are bracing for dangerous fire conditions and the prospect of nearly a million power outages as a potentially “historic” wind event was forecast to sweep into the state on Saturday.
The ongoing Kincade fire, which sparked Wednesday night in Sonoma and has consumed over 25,000 acres, is expected to worsen this weekend as strong winds, combined with low humidity, create what the National Weather Service called “extreme fire weather conditions.” State fire officials issued new evacuation orders on Saturday, bringing the total number of people ordered to flee the region to about 50,000 people.
These are just the latest examples of the changes roiling California as climate change leads to hotter, drier conditions. Every year, winds known as the Diablo in the north and Santa Ana in the south pick up after months of no rain. The last two wildfire seasons were the state’s deadliest and most destructive in history, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, and climate change is a “key driver,” the agency says.
“While wildfires are a natural part of California’s landscape, the fire season in California and across the West is starting earlier and ending later each year,” the agency adds in a warning for this year on its website.
At the same time, PG&E’s older network poses dangers as aboveground power lines have the ability to spark the next major fire with the next gust of wind. The utility company, which declared bankruptcy after its infrastructure caused the most deadly California wildfire on record last year, has deployed a new strategy: preemptively shutting off the power in an attempt to prevent disaster.
That includes calm and sunny days like earlier this month, said winemaker Schmaltz, when “maybe one hair on my head went out of position.” It’s a risk-averse strategy that has proved frustrating and controversial, though some residents said they became more understanding in recent days as communities there are again blanketed in smoke.
Even a year ago, it was unthinkable that California – one of the most prosperous states in the country, which has spearheaded climate initiatives and taken the national lead in electric vehicle adoption – would be put in a situation where whole neighborhoods have a choice between sitting in the dark or relying on noisy gasoline generators to keep life going. In Sonoma, the hum is now a constant presence when the power goes out, like a chorus of lawn mowers in neighborhoods where there is no grass to trim.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, on Friday lashed out at the utility company over what he called years of greed and mismanagement that brought about the crisis.
“That greed has precipitated in a lack of intentionality and focus on hardening their grid, undergrounding their transmission lines,” Newsom said at a news conference. “They simply did not do their job.”
He said this can’t continue.
“But nonetheless we have to recognize we are living in a new world, particularly in a state like ours after a five-year historic drought, after 15 of the 20 most destructive fire seasons just since 2000 because of climate change,” the governor said. “The hots are getting hotter, and the dries are getting drier, and the wets are getting wetter, which has aided and abetted these grass fires.”
This week, despite power cuts in some areas, new fires raged in Sonoma County and near Los Angeles. Meanwhile, rolling blackouts were affecting swaths of the state, with more scheduled.
That meant California residents in areas where power is cut who bought air filters couldn’t run them to rid their homes of smoke. There was no way to charge their cellphones. They were streaming into stores to buy lanterns and solar chargers.
In Sonoma, the new way of life is apparent. Residents look down at their phones as they receive texts from alert-system Nixle to notify them of wildfires or power outages. Lines to fill up at gas stations stretch into the road. Signs along the streets warn of the danger from power shut-offs, instructing motorists to treat stoplights as stop signs.
Some mobile home communities here put out bids for generators to ensure continued water supply from a well. For now, a manager said, residents are filling up their bathtubs preemptively so they’ll be able to flush their toilets when the power is out.
The Garrett Ace Hardware in Healdsburg, about a seven-mile drive from where the Kincaid fire began, has practically had to redefine its inventory – for the long haul, said manager Penny Arreguin.
Inside the store this week, workers were unloading 280 boxes of 10-count N95 masks, which filter out air particulates when it’s smoky. Normally they only have 12 boxes in stock. Generators are flying off the shelves.
The hardware store has become the town supplier for all things fire and power outage, including hoses, sprinklers, batteries, flashlights, fire extinguishers, air purifiers, extension cords and camping and survival gear.
“This is the new norm,” said Arreguin. It’s “preparing for the future.”
Tanner Carlozzi, 24, has gotten used to the risk of fires, having grown up in the Healdsburg area and watching it turn from green to brown. He puts his perishables on ice and heads to his mother’s home in nearby Windsor to check on her and his grandmother. He also makes sure their cars have fuel, and that food and water are stocked up.
In 2017, he packed his belongings into boxes as fire consumed the area. Now he can’t stand a bonfire or barbecue, worrying about the potential risk.
In the nearby Coffey Park neighborhood, houses were leveled in 2017 by the fires. This week, residents of the newly rebuilt homes were warned of potential power shut-offs as fires raged nearby.
Some houses were still under construction. Workers’ radios occasionally blared out public notices of potential blackouts.
John Holden, 70, moved into his rebuilt home the day after Christmas. His home of 32 years burned down two years ago.
“You have water, you have a flashlight, you don’t keep your freezer stocked up with too much stuff,” he said of his new way of life. “A lot of people get generators, but they’re noisy and people don’t like it.”
Holden, who grew up in Southern California, said he doesn’t understand PG&E’s decision.
“Well, there’s nothing much left here to burn, so I don’t know why they would turn this off anyway,” he said. “We’ll probably be okay.”
Schmaltz, the winemaker, said his family pays as much as $350 a month for electricity in their single-family home in nearby Cloverdale.
“Most of the country, I would imagine, would be outraged at those kind of electricity rates, and then to be dealing with [these outages] on top of it,” he said. We live in “one of the nicest places in the world, we have some of the highest rents in the world, having to live out of boxes every once in a while, it’s kind of a slap in the face.”
Over at Bella Vineyards and Wine Caves, Schmaltz sent employees home for a day last week because there was no running water – they didn’t yet have a second generator to power a pump in the well. A neighbor lent him one.
After the fires broke out, however, the neighbor lost power as well.
“Come grab your generator,” Schmaltz told him.
On Saturday, Healdsburg was evacuated because of the fires, and he again sent the team home.
“The winery is shutting down,” he texted.
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The Washington Post’s Andrew Freedman contributed to this report.