California wildfires and power outages cause disruptions for scientists

Blackouts and blazes prompt university closures and uncertainty about when life can return to normal.

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A firefighter walks through thick smoke illuminated by fire engine lights and embers

Smoke swirls around a firefighter helping to tackle the Kincade wildfire burning in northern California.Credit: Stephen Lam/REUTERS

Wildfires whipped up by hurricane-force winds have led to evacuations and precautionary power outages across California over the past few days. Major research institutions, including the University of California, Berkeley (UCB), endured their second blackout in a month.

Researchers say that things have gone more smoothly this time, compared with the chaos triggered by the loss of electricity earlier this month. When UCB lost power on 9 and 10 October, some scientists stocked their freezers with dry ice to keep specimens frozen, while others moved their freezers to nearby facilities that still had power.

The Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), based in San Francisco, California, cut off power to hundreds of thousands of residents in north and central California on 26 October to reduce the risk of wildfires. The decision followed the explosive growth of the Kincade fire, which broke out on 23 October near Santa Rosa, California, north of San Francisco. UCB and the neighbouring Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) were among the institutions that closed their doors on 26 October as the fire spread.

Officials at the university pre-emptively switched to a campus power plant before PG&E cut electricity to the area on 26 October. A similar decision during the previous blackout created chaos in UCB’s science labs because staff and faculty members weren’t sure which outlets would have power. University officials did a better job of communicating how the back-up power system would work this time, says Liana Lareau, a computational biologist at UCB.

A new normal?

University researchers were still able to access facilities to check on their samples and experiments during the latest campus closure, but they had to scramble to relocate meetings with colleagues and students.

A conference on the CRISPR gene-editing tool scheduled for 26 October also had to be moved off campus, says Jennifer Doudna, a biochemist who heads the university’s Innovative Genomics Institute. Organizers streamed the meeting online for those who couldn’t squeeze into the smaller space. “It’s crazy,” Doudna says. “How can we be living in a state with the fifth-largest economy in the world and having power outages like this?”

She hopes the situation will push the state government and PG&E to make the investments needed to bolster the grid and prevent such disruptions in the future. “I don’t think this type of climate is going away,” says Doudna. “We have to plan for it.”

The Kincade fire had burnt more than 30,000 hectares as of 29 October, and remained just 15% contained. In Los Angeles, another blaze, known as the Getty fire, had burnt more than 265 hectares, forcing the evacuation of thousands and prompting the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), to cancel classes on 28 October. As of 29 October, firefighters had contained only 15% of the Getty fire.

Both UCLA and UCB resumed normal operations on 29 October. PG&E restored power to LBNL’s main site on 28 October, but the facility remained closed on 29 October. Officials aimed to reopen the lab by 30 October, according to a notice on its website.

Nature 575, 16 (2019)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-03302-z

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