SCE Plunges Malibu Into Dark for Thanksgiving

Updated areas of PSPS consideration as of Nov. 24

Some dined in RVs, camper trailers, or on backyard barbecues. Some scrambled to secure last minute dinner reservations or take-out orders at restaurants in communities outside town. Others who called up friends and relatives for an impromptu Wednesday Thanksgiving feast dined on leftover turkey sandwiches in the dark on Thursday evening. A lucky few fired up their generators and tucked into a traditional supper.

That was the story of Thanksgiving 2021 in Malibu, after Southern California Edison (SCE) flipped the switch, plunging virtually every residence from Deer Creek to Sunset Boulevard in the dark between Wednesday afternoon, Nov. 24, and Thursday morning, Nov. 25. Power was not restored in most places until Friday, nearly 24 hours after the Lions suffered their annual Turkey Day loss.

The controversial public safety power shut-off (PSPS) program, which began in 2018, is designed to save neighborhoods from disaster should a downed SCE power line cause a major conflagration, like what happened in the 2018 Woolsey and 2017 Thomas fires. But opponents say the program is more of a liability protection for the utility than a public safety measure, and argue SCE should better maintain its lines or underground the wires rather than plunge rate-payers into the dark when winds get high.

On Tuesday evening, Nov. 30, SCE spokesperson Jill Anderson, executive vice president of operations, said residents who were forced to throw away spoiled Thanksgiving ingredients or pony up for expensive last-minute hotel stays were out of luck on reimbursements.

“There is a claims process but I want to be transparent that we only pay from the damage caused from outages when it’s the result of any kind of negligence … weather and events like this is not something that’s a result of negligence,” Anderson told city council during an adjourned meeting. She added: “I know that’s not a very satisfying response for people but I’d like to address it head-on.”

Anderson said some who came to the SCE help center set up at Malibu Bluffs Park were given grocery store gift cards.

The wind that arrived Wednesday night and continued into Thanksgiving Day were about 10-15 miles per hour stronger than the National Weather Service had predicted.

At least eight “downed line” calls were made to Los Angeles County firefighters Thursday morning, as peak winds as high as 77 miles per hour hit the city.  That measurement was taken by a wind gauge mounted on a power pole on Murphy Way, above Paradise Cove, before communication was lost at sunrise.

Some of those drowned lines were communications lines, not power lines. 

SCE had predicted that only customers west of Pepperdine University would see their power intentionally cut. But during the night, all of Malibu was switched off.  Also blacked out were areas north of the mountains, all the way to the Ventura (101) Freeway and east to Calabasas. 

Most traffic signals on PCH in western Malibu stayed up on battery power overnight, but by 7 a.m. a few had failed. City crews were stationing portable generators at the Caltrans control boxes, and they restored signal service to every intersection but one, at Zumirez Drive. 

PCH traffic was flowing smoothly all night and all day. The only observed incident was a tree that fell over at the Sterling Farm at 1:37 a.m. and blocked two westbound lanes of PCH.

Traffic was able to use the left turn lane for Heathercliff Drive to avoid the work crews, sawing up the tree.

Countywide, SCE estimated that 63,844 customer accounts were turned off on purpose by midday Thursday. That apparently did not include the 2,000 or so accounts in western Malibu that it missed in its tally, as it erroneously reported that the Gallahad Circuit had not been turned off. It was turned off at about 6:40 p.m. Wednesday night. 

Virtually all of the Santa Monica Mountains and parts of suburbia south of the 101 Freeway, including Topanga Canyon, are blacked out as well.

Wireless customers were saying that T-Mobile wireless service was up, but Verizon was down at the Trancas and Paradise Cove area. Charter/Spectrum had techs all over installing gasoline-powered generators trying to keep their network up.

Frontier Fiber (formerly FioS) was up, as long as people had batteries or power to their home terminal boxes.

KBUU was off the FM air from 4:47 to 8:40 a.m. with a flipped circuit breaker at its mountaintop antenna. Winds topped 77 mph up there just before the outage.

Businesses, including restaurants, were reported closed from one end of town to the other.

Jimmy Chavez, the longtime manager of Duke’s Malibu Restaurant, predicted the restaurant could lose 800 pounds of turkey. But, he said, he would give those birds to the homeless and underprivileged: “and that makes us feel good.”

Speaking to KBUU News last Wednesday, Nov. 24, SCE spokesperson David Eisenhauer said the utility company felt it had no other option.

“I also want to say, we understand—we completely understand—this is Thanksgiving weekend, a time when people get their families and friends together. And we know electricity is a critical part of that, and it is a hardship and we have to turn off the power at any time, but especially during the holiday gathering or holiday get together,” Eisenhauer said. “We understand that. We just have to do it for safety reasons. We can’t compromise on safety.”

At the Nov. 30 city council meeting, Council Member Mikke Pierson said he did not agree with the PSPS program in general, but “sided” with SCE when it came to the power shut-offs during the extremely high wind last week.

“In an event like that, I’m going to have to side with you. If you don’t de-energize, we’re going to burn down,” Pierson said. 

The council member—and other council members and public speakers—said immediate grid upgrades were needed.

“I think what’s frustrating about this is it’s easy from a resident’s perspective to view that if the equipment was more up-to-date, and modern, and newer—like, the Cuthbert circuit needs upgrades.”

After questioning from Council Member Karen Farrer, Rudy Gonzalez of SCE said that undergrounding of utilities was “on the table,” but did not go into detail. Anderson agreed, saying that they were “not satisfied with the status quo.”

Kim Devore contributed to this report.

A version of this story was previously broadcast on KBUU News.