All was quiet at dawn in the north Berkeley Hills. A few people were out in the early morning darkness, walking dogs, jogging, waiting for the bus. The contrast was stark looking down to the flats where power had not been lost and the lights were still on.
A longtime resident on Creston Road, who said he was retired from the tech industry and didn’t want to give his name, was out with a flashlight in case people needed help. “We have elderly people up here,” he said. “I just wanted to make sure no one was panicking.”
Like several others interviewed Thursday morning, he said he was frustrated at PG&E, and especially the lack of consistent and coordinated communication among agencies, including the city. The predicted time of the outage kept changing Wednesday and then “from 2:30 p.m. there was nothing; nothing,” he said.
Power went out starting at 11 p.m. Wednesday
Power started to go out around Berkeley around 11 p.m. PG&E’s outage map shows about 3,500 homes and businesses without power, which means many thousand more than that don’t have working electricity.
PG&E cut the power off to millions in the state as a preventative measure, known as a Public Safety Power Shutoff. High winds were forecast for the East Bay hills and in parts of Northern California and the utility wanted to prevent trees and branches from falling on power lines and sparking fires. PG&E has admitted its equipment caused many of the state’s recent fires, including the deadly 2018 Camp Fire, which killed 85 people.
But in Berkeley and the inner East Bay at least, the high winds never materialized. The National Weather Service reported maximum gusts of between 24 and 38 mph in the Oakland hills. Gusts reached 75 mph on the top of Mount Diablo, however.
“It’s not windy at all here,” said David Austern, who lives in the Berkeley hills.
Peak overnight wind gusts as of 5:15 AM. The highest peaks have seen gusts over 70 mph. Winds will decrease later today but remain gusty especially in the North and East Bay Hills through the afternoon. #CAwx #CAFire pic.twitter.com/TsbBcIuTe8— NWS Bay Area 🌉 (@NWSBayArea) October 10, 2019
In Berkeley, northerly winds of between 10 and 20 mph are expected for Thursday during the day, dropping to between 5 and 10 mph by night time.
But red-flag conditions, meaning a high risk of fire danger, remain in the Berkeley hills. “Conditions remain critically dry,” the NWS tweeted. The humidity level on Grizzly Peak Boulevard was 17% at 6:20 a.m., according to the NWS.
PG&E has said it will start turning the power back on as soon as weather conditions permit.
UC Berkeley cancels classes
For the second day in a row, UC Berkeley canceled classes. The university had announced Wednesday evening that classes would be held, a reflection of the uncertainty surrounding whether or not PG&E would shut power off. At 12:41 a.m., after the university lost power, the classes were canceled.
Berkeley Lab posted a video of the moment it lost power at 12:18 a.m. Thursday.
UC is asking students, faculty and staff to stay away from campus today. If too many people return, it could overload the campus’ emergency generators and back-up energy sources, according to Marc Fisher, UC Berkeley’s vice chancellor for administration, and Alicia Johnson, director of Berkeley’s Office of Emergency Management.
Student residence halls are being powered through UC Berkeley’s co-generation support.
“During the shutdown, use of energy in non-residential buildings on campus could trip the co-generation facility, in particular, and lead to de-energizing life safety systems that are a priority and in place to help minimize risks to people and facilities,” Fisher and Johnson wrote.
Scientist worried the outage will impact experiments
A number of science buildings at UC Berkeley don’t have back-up power, prompting some professors to take dramatic steps to preserve their work. James Olzmann, an associate professor in the department of nutritional sciences and toxicology, tweeted a photo of moving trucks taking his department’s -80-degree freezers from Morgan Hall to UCSF. Other professors tweeted at California Gov. Gavin Newsom to draw attention to the fact that millions of dollars of experiments were at risk.
Moving trucks taking our -80 freezers to @ucsf because our @UCBerkeley building doesn’t have backup power and PG&E is shutting off the power (up to 5 days?!). Incredibly disruptive to our research.😔 Big shoutout to @RobertoZoncu for letting us put our cells in his incubators! pic.twitter.com/9r4HmJ2XdM— James Olzmann (@OlzmannLab) October 9, 2019
Did you know @CAgovernor that the @UCBerkeley campus has numerous research buildings with faculty (doing research supported by hundreds of millions in federal $) who can’t plug their freezers (holding precious samples) into backup power outlets because their are none?— Noah Whiteman (@NKWhiteman) October 10, 2019
People developing coping strategies
A woman waiting for the bus on Grizzly Peak to go to BART to her job in San Francisco joked about not being able to take a hot shower in the morning but also said there was confusing information about whether her child’s pre-school would be open or shut. She said the hot water was minor in the scheme of things. Her family was prepared, she said.
Nearby, a man was checking his cell phone to see if Berkeley schools were open or closed. He called the outage “an annoyance,” and was also upset at the confusing communication. He squarely blamed PG&E. “They neglected their infrastructure for years then they get kicked in the butt by fires and all of a sudden they’re so proactive.”
His neighbors in the outage zone he said, are “increasingly angered and annoyed. People didn’t know what to do; should I stay home or should I go to work?”
For Ginny O’Brien, the biggest inconvenience was not being able to drink coffee. She and her family had prepared for the outage and had used flashlights and their cell phones to get around their darkened house in the hills.
“I’m waiting for my coffee,” said O’Brien.
Another resourceful Berkeley resident, Patrick Buechner, couldn’t live without his morning coffee so he set up his camping stove to boil water.