In summary

A student population roughly the size of Santa Clara was kept home by the PG&E blackout. Then the Saddleridge Fire hit at the other end of California.

Between the explosive fires in Southern California and Pacific Gas & Electric Co.’s unprecedented power shutdown, more than 230,000 California students have been sent home this week due to school closures as red flag conditions and high winds bear down on both ends of the state.

In Northern California, more than 320 schools in 19 counties, including Sonoma, Napa, Contra Costa and Alameda, have shut their doors since PG&E initiated a massive, preventative power outage Wednesday — a student population of more than 130,000, roughly the size of the city of Santa Clara, according to a CalMatters tally. Meanwhile, in northern Los Angeles and Ventura counties, the eruption of the Saddleridge Fire late Thursday closed another 140 schools, canceling classes for some 108,000 more students.

The lost educational days, one impact among many in this era of climate-fueled natural disaster, come as California struggles to balance safety with economic cost and social disruption after a series of catastrophic wildfire seasons.

The lost educational days, one impact among many in this era of climate-fueled natural disaster, were announced as California authorities struggled to balance safety with economic cost and social disruption after a series of catastrophic wildfire seasons.

In Northern California, an unprecedented 800,000 customers of PG&E lost power this week under a new program aimed at preempting a repeat of last year’s devastating Camp Fire, which was linked to malfunctioning PG&E equipment. The safety measure — fairly routine in much of Southern California but new to the half of the state that relies on PG&E to keep the lights on — left cities from Bakersfield to the Bay Area scrambling to cope with the possibility of days without electricity. 

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Those customers grumbled, as did Gov. Gavin Newsom, who lambasted PG&E Thursday night, even as he acknowledged that preemptive outages would have to remain as a “tool in the tool kit.” But the alternative has been on display in Southern California. As Santa Ana winds blew up the Saddleridge Fire near Sylmar, nearly 5,000 acres were in flames and evacuation orders had been sent to some 23,000 households by Friday morning. In Riverside County, three more fires raged, including one that destroyed a mobile home park.

The danger and disruption extended, as ever, into California’s classrooms. Using 2018-19 state enrollment data, CalMatters calculated approximately 238,000 students in some 460 schools who were impacted by the fire- and outage-related emergency closures. Some of those closures lasted several days.

Dozens more schools warned parents to be on the lookout for early-morning emails notifying them that classes there might also be canceled as forecasters predicted red-flag conditions and high winds into next week. 

How much school time the Saddleridge Fire will take from California students is yet to be determined. But in terms of school closures due to power failure, the rolling outage is expected to be second only to the “Great Blackout” of September 2011, in which botched maintenance on a transmission line near Yuma, Arizona, caused a cascade of power failures throughout the Southwest.

That outage forced two dozen school districts primarily in San Diego county to close for a day, impacting 350,000 kids at the time, according to CalMatters’ database of reported school closures.

However, PG&E has made clear that such preemptive outages will be a new sort of normal for Northern California, as the utility changes its policy to reflect a wildfire liability that already has prompted it to seek bankruptcy protection.

Last November, more than 1 million students were kept home from school due to poor air quality sparked by massive fires in northern and southern California. Wildfires are the leading cause of emergency closures among California’s schools and have taken a particularly devastating toll on public schools over the last four years. 

California schools have lost more than 21,000 days of instruction due to wildfires since 2002, but more than half of those lost days have occurred since 2015, CalMatters found.

Among this month’s closures were schools in Sonoma and Lake counties that have been repeatedly battered by wildfire. Middletown Unified, for instance, which closed for the outage, has lost 25 days of instruction, the equivalent of five weeks of class time, over the last four years due to wildfire.

Lisette Estrella-Henderson, superintendent of the Solano County Office of Education, told families in a note that county schools “will continue to operate to the extent possible,” but added that “parents should consider sending students to school with breakfast and lunch items that do not require refrigeration or heat, as our menu options may be limited.”

Updated Oct. 11, 2019, to reflect new closure information.

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Ricardo Cano

Ricardo Cano covers California education for CalMatters. Cano joined CalMatters in September 2018 from The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com, where he spent three years as the education reporter. Cano...

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