Be prepared – PG&E blackouts are coming this fire season
If there is one thing Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) wants its five million electric customers to know this impending fire season, it is that they should be prepared for power outages throughout the summer and fall – for multiple days at a time.
“PG&E may cut power during red flag warnings this year – and if they are going to do it, this is certainly the year they will choose to do so,” said Kenwood Fire Chief Daren Bellach during a community meeting at the firehouse on April 29. Bellach and other fire captains had received a debriefing on PG&E’s plans at a regional meeting earlier that month.
Bellach said PG&E’s recommendations are to expect power outages that could last seven to 10 days, with approximately 48 hours of advance notice. The length of the outages will be dependent on the weather and the speed with which “de-energized” power lines can be inspected before being safely re-energized.
In October 2018, after Cal Fire investigators found that PG&E equipment failure caused several of the fires that broke out around Northern California in October 2017 (including the Nuns Fire in Sonoma Valley), PG&E opted to proactively cut power to some of its lines during a period of high wind, affecting 60,000 customers over three days across seven counties in the North Bay and Sierra foothills. However, this year, that proactive “de-energization” policy is being expanded to include PG&E’s high voltage transmission lines, with the potential to affect more people around the county and the state.
Transmission lines carry bulk electricity across the state, often mounted on large metal towers, while distribution lines deliver electricity to neighborhoods over a short distance, usually mounted on wooden poles. PG&E’s past de-energization policy did not include cutting power to its transmission lines. On May 15, Cal Fire investigators determined that the November 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County, the deadliest and most destructive in California history, was caused by electrical transmission lines owned by PG&E.
Because of the interconnected nature of the electrical grid, powering down transmission lines “could result in a cascading effect that causes other transmission lines and distribution lines – potentially far from the original fire-risk areas – to be de-energized,” PG&E stated in an April 25 filing to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). While the cities of San Francisco or San Jose are unlikely to experience a high risk of wildfire, San Francisco could possibly be de-energized if multiple East Bay transmission lines were to be de-energized, PG&E warned. Although it is an unlikely scenario, PG&E is actively cautioning all its customers to be prepared for the unexpected this fire season.
“While public safety power shutoffs are more likely to occur in high fire-risk areas, all Californians could be impacted by emergency events and need to be prepared with a plan and an emergency kit,” said a May 6 press release issued by PG&E.
Locally, this “cascading effect” could affect several parts of Sonoma Valley at once. According to the CPUC’s fire threat map (ia.cpuc.ca.gov/firemap/), all the mountainous areas of Kenwood and Glen Ellen are rated tier 2 (“elevated”) or tier 3 (“extreme”), which are the most likely areas to be impacted by a power shutoff during a red flag warning. But areas not in those tiers, closer to the valley floor (Oakmont, Santa Rosa, Boyes Hot Springs) could also be affected due to the interconnected nature of the electrical grid. “We are telling people to be prepared even if you aren’t in a tier 2 or 3 area,” said Deanna Contreras, media relations for PG&E.
PG&E will make the decision to shut off power – based on a combination of factors including high winds and low humidity – only as a “last resort.” Early warning notifications will be sent to customers from PG&E via phone calls, text alerts, emails and social media. PG&E is asking customers to update their contact information at pge.com/mywildfirealerts and to have an emergency plan in place. This includes building up an emergency kit and identifying back up charging methods for phones. Landline telephones using copper wires most likely will work during a power outage, while some VoIP lines may not. Cell phones will likely lose voice service in a power outage, as battery back up power in cell towers is usually limited to a few hours.
For those who want to use a back up generator in their home Chief Bellach recommends hiring a trained electrician to install a power transfer switch correctly. You can plug appliances directly into the generator, but it is dangerous to power house wiring by plugging the generator into a wall outlet.
Kenwood Elementary School does not currently have a back up generator, so parents should be prepared for school to be closed during extended power outages.
PG&E joins California’s two other largest energy companies, San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) and Southern California Edison (SCE) in taking this more aggressive and proactive de-energization policy. SDG&E, which serves 3.3 million customers in San Diego and southern Orange County, has been proactively turning off power to customers when fire risk or weather is dangerous since 2007. SCE serves approximately 15 million customers in a service territory of approximately 50,000 square miles and began its proactive de-energization in 2018. In 2018, SDG&E shut off power in three different instances, affecting a total of 39,982 customers. SCE turned off power twice in 2018, affecting a total of 118 customers. During 2018 there were more than 7,571 wildfires that burned over 1.8 million acres in California.
Identify backup charging methods for phones – Customers with copper lines (landline) generally have power during a power outage. This is because the central office that serves the residence usually has backup power, which provides the electricity necessary to operate a wired telephone during an outage. Cordless phones require the customer to maintain the batteries, so that the home portion of the telephone service can operate in a power outage. For VoIP customers, service during an outage depends on the underlying facility used by the provider. Some VoIP providers will maintain line power (some variants of DSL) during an outage, and others rely on network power, which may or may not be present. Wireless (cellular) customers may or may not have voice service in a power outage, depending on the backup power installed at cell sites.
Keep hard copies of emergency numbers
Plan for any medical needs – like medications that need to be refrigerated or devices that require power. The CPUC has directed the utilities to contact people with medical conditions when there are outages, regardless of cause. Therefore, it is vital that people with medical conditions alert the utility to their condition and make use of the medical baseline program, as appropriate.
Plan for the needs of pets and livestock – see HALTERproject.org for tips.
Build or restock emergency kits – with flashlights, fresh batteries, first aid supplies and cash.
Designate an emergency meeting location
Know how to manually open garage doors and gates
Ensure any backup generators are ready to safely operate
For more information, visit prepareforpowerdown.com.
Sarah Phelps is an editor and reporter. She was raised in Kenwood and has a BA from Loyola Marymount University.