Blacked out

Isolated rural residents, emergency responders and businesses are grappling with the implications of a new program designed to save them from the next catastrophic fire

Illustration by Maria Ratinova

El Dorado County has its share of rugged survivalist types. But after thousands of its residents had their electricity shut off for days as part of a new strategy to prevent wildfires, many foothill folks are wondering if they’ll all have to live like doomsday preppers now.

The blackouts started on the evening of October 14 as part of Pacific Gas & Electric Co.’s Public Safety Power Shut-off initiative. The impacts were felt the next day. The historic courthouse in Placerville put a pause on justice. Businesses on the north side of Main Street shut down while those on the south side won the illumination jackpot. Up in Pollock Pines, locals watched workers at their Safeway grocery store gut its entire deli and some of its produce section.

In the more remote hills and mountains, residents risked more than inconvenience. Landline phones, cellular coverage and internet went completely dead. People who depend on oxygen tanks, respirators and Nebulizers were left vulnerable. Isolated seniors couldn’t call family members or 911.

As the confusion unfolded, representatives for the utility giant arrived in Placerville to face county leaders and angry members of the public. The message from PG&E was clear: In a state that’s been brought to its knees by fire, life in the Gold Country won’t ever be the same again.

It was Black Monday—literally. On the morning of October 15, 27,000 structures in El Dorado County lost power. It was the maiden voyage of PG&E’s Public Safety Power Shut-off, or PSPS, program, developed last spring after state fire investigators implicated the company’s equipment in possibly contributing to at least 12 blazes. The fires were major events, killing 18 people, causing billions in damages and generating a mountain of lawsuits against PG&E.

The energy titan created PSPS as part of a broader prevention strategy that it says includes investing in stronger, coated power lines and engaging in emergency vegetation management. PG&E managers claim PSPS will help save lives and property. And with that comes sparing PG&E more legal exposure—something that California lawmakers already achieved through Senate Bill 901.

Signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, the law changes the standards of culpability for fires sparked by utility equipment. The bill also allows utility companies such as PG&E to pass some of the liability costs onto ratepayers through bonds.

The new law wasn’t something many in Placerville were focusing on as the 170-year-old city saw roughly half its workforce head home. Jeff Meader, the owner of the magazine and stationary store Placerville News Company, said he got multiple notices of the impending blackout a day before it happened. For businesses like his, the outage lasted from Sunday evening to late Monday afternoon. Meader says he’s most concerned that the shut-off is part of PG&E’s long-term tactic for operating in fire-prone California. Meader fears such outages could become semi-regular occurrences next summer.

“It’s going to be a big problem for businesses if it starts happening a lot,” he said. “It was a huge disruption down here.”

Businesses in south El Dorado were hit even harder. Power wasn’t restored in parts of Grizzly Flat, Somerset, Fairplay and Mount Aukum for three days. Jolene Kaiser, owner of Crossroads Coffee in Somerset, said the outage cut into her revenues.

“It’s rough having to be closed, especially with Monday being one of our busiest mornings of the week,” Kaiser observed. “The amount of food we keep here is small enough that we were able to pack it up, bring it home and keep it cool; but the grocery store just up the road lost food.”

One person taking a nuanced view of the incident is Laurel Brent-Bumb, who’s the CEO of the El Dorado County Chamber of Commerce, as well as the founder of the Sustainable Forest Action Coalition. While Brent-Bumb is concerned about the PSPS program’s impacts on small businesses, years of studying forest fuel density in California has left her troubled about the other side of the equation, too. Brent-Bumb says she’s worried Placerville is one emergency away from suffering the same fate as Red Bluff and Santa Rosa.

“What didn’t happen Monday was a catastrophic fire,” she pointed out. “What happened was a lot of residents and business owners were inconvenienced, and there was an economic impact, especially to the businesses that had perishables. But it worked in the sense that there wasn’t a fire.”

Brent-Bumb added, “Why did the power take so long to turn back on? That’s my great concern now.”

Locals wanted answers as they poured into county government chambers last week. It was Tuesday, October 16, and some 5,600 residents of El Dorado County still didn’t have power. By PG&E’s own admission, that included 245 “medical baseline customers,” meaning people who get extra allotments of electricity for special equipment needed for significant health problems.

The task of explaining what happened fell on Aaron Johnson, vice president of PG&E’s community wildfire safety division. Johnson said the PSPS program constantly monitors weather forecasts, paying close attention to a certain combination of dry conditions, low humidity and high winds.

“The wind is what puts it over the top for us,” he told supervisors. “It’s not that our equipment isn’t rated for those types of wind speeds—it certainly is—but it’s more about the debris that breaks loose and flies into our lines, potentially causing a line to come down and be a source for a spark.”

Johnson went on to explain that winds of 25-to-35-mph and gusts, which are sudden bursts of high winds, of 45-to-55-mph can trigger a power shut-off if conditions are dry enough. He added a tree had just struck a power line in a part of Amador County that was also blacked out, potentially avoiding a fire. Johnson called that “a data point” to indicate he’d made the right decision.

Johnson also addressed why it was taking so long to restore power.

“The challenge with this program is that once you make the decision, in advance of a fire, to turn off power, we lose our eyes and ears of the electrical grid,” he said. “Before we can reenergize that, we have to physically patrol the lines.”

District 2 Supervisor Shiva Frentzen asked Johnson if there was a way for PG&E to examine historic weather data and predict how often it might have to yank El Dorado County’s power. Johnson told her the company is exploring that possibility, but then noted she shouldn’t get her hopes up.

“As weather continues to get more extreme in this state, the past will not necessary be a predictor of the future,” Johnson said soberly.

Kristine Oase Guth, manager of the El Dorado County Emergency Preparedness and Response program, told SN&R that sheriff’s officials, firefighters and health workers are coordinating a plan for the outages that might come next summer. She said assisting elderly residents and people with fragile health will be a top priority. A likely scenario, Guth added, would include opening various shelters with generators to run medical equipment.

Asked if PG&E had shared its list of “medical baseline customers” with county officials, Guth responded that it had not.

“We don’t have that list,” she acknowledged. “I don’t know if they can share it because of customer privacy issues and HIPPA, but either way, we’re trying to figure out ways to duplicate that same information, so we know where those people are.”

During the October 16 board meeting, county leaders didn’t press PG&E on whether it could share its medical baseline customer list. Instead, several supervisors wondered aloud if it wasn’t time for every business owner and resident of El Dorado County to have their own generator. They also discussed the need for residents to be self-reliant by having a personal action plans for outages. Those sentiments didn’t go over well with Teresa Lukini.

Lukini, who lives near Mount Aukum, said during public comment that she has elderly neighbors, a mother on oxygen and three family members with diabetes. She stressed most of her neighbors can’t afford a generator, nor can they just take a trip when the power goes out.

“I have four generations of my family in my house and it’s because they can’t afford to live somewhere else, so going somewhere is not an option for most people,” Lukini said. “If something were to have happened to my family, there would have been no way to call the sheriff or anybody. … It’s all dandy to say we have to buy a generator and be prepared to have a plan. Well, maybe some people don’t have a plan because they can’t afford a plan.”