Local officials prepare for safety-related power shutoffs
The threat of high winds coupled with dry fuels prompted PG&E to conduct its first public safety power shutoff in Butte County in June. The outage—which came after the utility’s electrical equipment was found to have caused the Camp Fire in November—lasted less than a day and was carried out to avoid sparking another wildfire.
The event prompted a number of questions at a subsequent Board of Supervisors meeting, where it was discussed. Whom did PG&E notify about the impending outage and how? How will residents and businesses keep their food cold during an extended outage? Most important: Are those with medical needs being considered?
As PG&E has warned it could cut power for extended periods of time because of wildfire danger, city and county officials throughout California have grappled with how to respond and protect their most vulnerable citizens (see “Power play,” page 18). In Butte County, local plans were put to the test June 8, when 21,000 customers in Oroville, Paradise, Magalia, Forest Ranch and surrounding communities had their power turned off.
Cindi Dunsmoor, the emergency services officer under the Office of Emergency Management for Butte County, is charged with emergency planning and preparedness. Local officials, she said, would have preferred to receive more advance notice—the county received about 24 hours’ notice—but procedures were followed to notify vulnerable populations in the affected areas and make sure government services continued to run.
Dunsmoor said the county Department of Employment and Social Services called people signed up for its voluntary Special Needs Awareness Program (SNAP), which includes about 800 folks who are clients of in-home supportive services (IHSS), as well as wheelchair users, people who are bed-bound and others who may need extra help with planning for emergencies.
PG&E, she said, also alerted customers enrolled in the utility’s medical “baseline” program, which provides discounted rates for people with medical devices that require electricity to operate. PG&E has shared that list with counties that sign nondisclosure agreements. Butte County, Dunsmoor said, didn’t have the list at the time of the June shutoff but has since received it. About 1,500 baseline customers were affected in the June shutoff, according to PG&E data.
The county’s SNAP registry may not identify every person who could be considered vulnerable—some may not want to sign up for the program—but it is “fairly comprehensive,” Dunsmoor said.
“I know it’s not perfect,” she said, adding, “and this list isn’t a guarantee that someone is going to come save you, [but] it is helpful for preparing as much as we can, [to] give advance notice, check on folks, make sure that they’re aware of whatever we’re aware of.”
Paul Moreno, a spokesman for PG&E, told the CN&R that the utility has campaigned for its electric customers to confirm they have given PG&E their most current contact information, so they can receive phone calls, text messages or emails alerting them to potential power shutoffs. In Butte County alone, he said, the utility has identified 2,100 customers for whom it does not have contact information.
Further, PG&E has not yet solved the problem of identifying people who are not on the utility’s customer rosters but may be affected by a prolonged power outage—such as tenants and other household members not signed up with PG&E.
“We’ve been working to try to find a solution to that,” Moreno said.
He noted the utility conducts outreach through multiple channels, including social media and news outlets, to alert people as to when and where a planned shutoff is scheduled to occur. In some cases, he said, weather and fuel conditions may precipitate a sudden or unexpected power shutoff. In June, the utility opened a temporary resource center in Oroville where people could charge their devices and cool off. Such centers are expected to be set up going forward.
“In recent years and decades, the risk of wildfires has continued to increase,” Moreno said. “Some people said, ‘How come you never did this before? You didn’t have to do this before. Why now?’ Well, we’re facing very different fire conditions than we were just a decade or two ago.”
For the city of Chico, emergency management facilitation runs through Fire Chief Steve Standridge’s office. City departments are given discretion to identify how they should respond to events such as a planned PG&E outage. The police department, for example, has suggested a citywide curfew during planned shutoffs (see “Lights out,” Newslines, Aug. 8). For the fire department, a shutoff would trigger putting additional engines on the street in preparation for a possible spike in calls for service. It also means conducting regular welfare checks on what Standridge calls “vulnerable facilities,” such as assisted-living homes.
Those automatic welfare checks, however, do not extend to individuals, the fire chief said, adding that his department does not have a list of people who could be vulnerable during a planned power outage. The city, he said, is evaluating a program to address that issue.
There is a lower probability Chico will be broadly affected by public safety power shutoffs in part because of how PG&E can cut power to specific areas in the city, Standridge said. During the June outage, only a few homes within city limits were affected.
Planning remains “very much a fluid situation,” the fire chief said. “Quite frankly, the first step was really understanding the nature of the … hazard and risk prior to really [delving] deep into, ‘OK, now what do we need to do from here?’”