Impacts of power shutoffs widespread and expensive
Like elsewhere in Sonoma County, the communities of Glen Ellen, Kenwood and Oakmont went through a rollercoaster of emotions and issues as they struggled to deal with multiple days in the dark.
The devastating Kincade Fire that began in Geyserville on Oct. 23, fueled by extreme winds, prompted Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) to begin off-and-on Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS). Another PSPS earlier in the month was implemented due to a previous red flag warning, lasting close to three days for some in the area.
The latest PSPS lasted a good five days for many locals, with the impacts of all the blackouts piling up on residents and businesses.
The buildup PG&E had been telling customers since the beginning of the year about the potential for a lengthy PSPS that would be conducted when fire conditions were dangerous. Criteria for a PSPS include a red flag warning declared by the National Weather Service, low humidity, and high winds.
The goal: preventing PG&E equipment from being blown down and starting fires, as happened with the fire in Sonoma Valley on Oct. 8, 2017, as well as other fires in the county that same night.
As of press time, the Kincade Fire was 72 percent contained, burning almost 80,000 acres, and destroying 372 structures, including close to 170 homes. No loss of life has been reported.
The fire should be fully contained by Nov. 7, according to Cal Fire.
A few days into the Kincade Fire, the flames started moving toward Healdsburg and Windsor, with very high winds predicted for the evening of Oct. 26, making the fire's next moves unpredictable.
As various parts of the county were being evacuated or receiving evacuation warnings, a disturbing alert got locals' attention in the early morning hours, many of whom were already awake monitoring the winds.
Messages from the county's NIXLE alert system, from NOAA, for those having a NOAA radio, and a report on KSRO radio, said that a mandatory evacuation order had been issued for Fountaingrove, Rincon Valley, and Oakmont.
Pat Barclay, chair of Oakmont's Emergency Preparedness Committee (OEPC), said his phone quickly began blowing up with messages.
“There were a number of people who said, 'holy crap, let's get the hell out of dodge.' ”
A short time later, it was relayed that this was an error, but by that time, a number of Oakmonters had hit the road, choosing to be safe rather than sorry.
Fortunately, Barclay had been able to contact about 40 people in OEPC's organized radio emergency network, who then proceeded to tell as many people as possible that there was no mandatory evacuation order.
“This was definitely a glitch,” said Barclay, “But at least a lot of people managed to stay because we were able to get the word out.”
For many, up to five days without power followed that nerve rattling moment.
Oakmont Gardens, an assisted living facility in Oakmont, conducted a PSPS-related voluntary evacuation of its 190 residents, 60 of whom were transported to sister facilities, with most of the others released to the care of family members. Oakmont Gardens staff said that with the PSPS, the rooms would have been too cold for clients, and food would have eventually gone bad.
Since 2017, Oakmont Gardens has conducted a number of evacuation drills, so when the time came on Oct. 27 to move everyone out, all went smoothly, according to one staff member. Most everyone had returned to the facility by the end of the week.
Lending a helping handResidents of Sonoma Valley are all too familiar with evacuations, property loss due to fires, and the emotional impacts of a disaster.
A number decided to chip in to see where they could fit in.
Not surprisingly, Glen Ellen resident Julie Atwood and her animal rescue organization and mutual aid resource, HALTER, had been preparing to aid in animal rescue efforts even before notice of an oncoming PSPS was issued close to three weeks ago.
HALTER (Horse and Livestock Team Emergency Response) helped in a variety of efforts, including aiding in arranging transport of large animals and finding places to board them, including at her own Atwood Ranch, running food to veterinary responders at evacuation centers, and much more.
On the morning of Nov. 2, Atwood and others were helping Sonoma County Animal Services get ready to open a shelter in Santa Rosa where people could look for pets that were displaced during advisory or mandatory evacuations.
“This disaster isn't close to being over yet,” said Atwood.
Licensed clinical psychologist Katherine Hargitt of Glen Ellen would certainly agree with that sentiment. She is part of the Sonoma County Red Cross Mental Health Disaster Action Team, which was on site at evacuation centers at the Healdsburg Community Center and Windsor High School the evening fire broke out in Geyserville on Oct. 23.
Evacuees soon besieged the centers, many in a panic and in varying degrees of distress, not knowing if their home was destroyed, or not being able to contact elderly parents or other family members.
Among the many other duties of a volunteer at the scene, Hargitt was there to provide mental health services, often scanning for people who might be having more acute mental health issues.
In a situation where one is dealing with victims of a disaster, Hargitt said it's important to be self-regulated.
“It's not a time to do therapy,” said Hargitt. “It's good for people to talk to people who are grounded. We tried to make them comfortable, as comfortable as someone can be in that situation. We feed off each other so it's important to be that place of calm and equanimity.”
Hargitt is one of only two mental health professionals on the county Red Cross Mental Health Disaster Action team. Though there are two new people in training, she encourages other providers to sign up.
Of course, everyone needs to eat during a disaster, and TIPS Roadside restaurant in Kenwood sent their Tri Tip Trolley up to serve first responders battling the Kincade Fire, something they also did during the Sonoma Valley fires in 2017.
A GoFund me page was started to help pay for food and TIPS Roadside employees - which came to about $1,800 a day. As of Nov. 2, over $11,000 had been raised. There were crowds of hungry firefighters lined up to get a big burrito with eggs, beans, rice and meat.
“We were able to feed over 1,700 first responders all because of the amazing generosity of this remarkable community,” said Susie Pryfogle, who owns TIPS Roadside with her husband, Andrew. “We are so grateful for our employees who stepped up and were willing to work under those conditions.”
PSPS not pretty for businessThe PSPS outages were tough on local businesses, leaving many to wonder what the future holds if days without customers is the “new normal,” not to mention the lost wages of the many employees who need to make a living.
The shutoffs couldn't have come at a worse time - October is prime wine country tourist season, with great weather and increased community events and activities related to harvest for residents and visitors alike.
“The thing that worries me is the general public hearing the power going out and not wanting to come to the region,” said Jeff Kunde. Kunde Family Winery fared better than most local businesses, as they had put in major back-up power in 2016.
Many tastings rooms in the area were closed down, events cancelled, and grape picking rescheduled.
After the first PSPS in the earlier part of October, some businesses were able to bring in generators and stay open, or partially open, when the next rounds of PSPS rolled around. But a number of businesses just had to close for days.
Sam Singh, owner of the Kenwood Market, estimates he lost more than $50,000 in food products and sales. He bought a portable generator after the Oct. 8-10 PSPS, and was able to be open for limited shopping during the last outage.
Suzette Tyler, owner along with her husband Jeff, of Palooza Brewery & Gastropub in Kenwood, estimates the business lost $100,000, “easy.”
Linda and Luca Citti put the figure at $75,000 in lost sales and food over eight shuttered business days in October. On top of that, they just received a notice from their insurance company saying their business insurance would not be renewed due to the “location's exposure to wildfire.”
Sondra Bernstein, proprietor of the fig café in Glen Ellen, said that the early October PSPS cost $85,000 in lost revenue, and $20,000 in lost wages for her employees. This was even before the last five-day shut down.
Local inns and hotels had to cancel reservations, or were hesitant to make new ones given the threat of no power.
Those who rented large generators found it to be very expensive, and the cost of installing permanent backup power, and getting the proper permits, etc., is prohibitive for many. Costs can run up to tens of thousands of dollars.
The list of impacts on business goes on and on. Adding to the hardship, businesses with losses are also finding that their insurance will not cover events where the power is shut off on purpose, even if it was for safety reasons.
“We checked with our insurance company before the proposed shut down and they said they will cover zero,” said Henry Belmonte of VJB Vineyards, who estimated VJB lost 70 percent of their estimated revenue.
According to Linda Citti, her insurance company told her that, “I would be hard-pressed to find ANY insurance company that would cover such losses.”
Feelings among business people run the gamut regarding whether the PSPS program is a good idea, given the threat to the public of more wildfires. But one thing they all agree on is that PG&E has to improve the safety of their infrastructure, and that the current PSPS program as structured is untenable.
“They have to figure out ways they can segregate or divide up the grid so the shutoffs can be more targeted,” said Robert and PJ Rex of Deerfield Ranch Winery. “Until they do that, this is a third world solution.”
Said Palooza's Suzette Tyler, “I think the public safety shutoffs should be done with more consideration than flipping a switch to cover their asses. The repercussions are huge, and I don't think PG&E has made themselves fully aware of them.”
Schools closed for daysDunbar Elementary School in Glen Ellen and the rest of the Sonoma Valley Unified School District (SVUSD) were closed the entire week of Oct. 28. In a letter to parents and staff, school officials cited the lack of containment of the Kincade Fire at the time, the loss of power at Dunbar, Altimira Middle School on Arnold Dr., and Flowery Elementary School in the Springs, as well as the power being off for SVUSD families and staff in those areas. In addition, the letter stated that about a third of its staff lived in areas where there were mandatory evacuations.
Kenwood Elementary School was also closed the entire week of Oct. 28. During the first PSPS, Oct. 8-10, the school was able to stay open because the high outdoor temperatures made classrooms comfortable, and there were generators to keep the phone system working, lights in student restrooms, and the kitchen freezer operating.
However, said Superintendent/Principal Bob Bales, the PSPS that started on Oct. 26 was a different story. Countywide, district superintendents agreed to close on Monday and Tuesday, Oct. 28 and 29 because of concern of fire and windy conditions.
The temperatures then dropped, meaning classrooms would be below 50 degrees, a situation that was not “comfortable or appropriate for our learning conditions.”
“We tried to hold out as long as possible, hoping to open the final two days of the week,” said Bales. “But the lack of power combined with the cold weather made it untenable.”
Bales said the district, like others, built in two emergency days in the 2019-20 school calendar to allow for a situation like this. The State of California requires a minimum of 180 school days, and Bales will be appealing to the state to waive the three other missed days, much like what occurred in the 2017 fires in Sonoma Valley, when Kenwood School was closed for 15 days.
“I am proud of our staff's readiness and response, as we learned a great deal from the tragedy of 2017, and were able to best address the needs of our students and families.”
Local fire departments help out
With so many fires in Sonoma County raging out of control at the exact same time in 2017, there was little, if any, ability at that moment for fire departments in different locations to help each other.
Two years later, preparation by fire personnel throughout the county has made firefighters ready to go when a red flag warning is issued, and our local departments in Sonoma chipped in to fight the Kincade fire.
Steve Akre, fire chief of the Sonoma Valley Fire & Rescue Authority (SVFRA), said resources from all its stations, including from Glen Ellen, took part. At the height of SVFRA's participation, there were seven engines, one water tender, and six Chief Officers.
“There was tremendous dedication and commitment from all our personnel, career and volunteer,” said Akre.
The Kenwood Fire Department provided two large fire engines, a Type 1 and a Type 3 (brush fire), each staffed with four firefighters to help with the Kincade Fire. As of press time, the Type 3 had returned to Kenwood, according to Fire Chief Daren Bellach, with the Type 1 still on duty, but expected back shortly. The Kenwood fire station has been staffed and ready for local emergencies for the entire time, Bellach noted.
“It's better to be ahead than behind,” Bellach said of the major evacuations that took place. “If we didn't have the PG&E shutoff, we would have had more major fires.”
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