The Pacific Gas & Electric Co. Community Wildfire Safety Team mailed out notices to customers on May 28, cautioning them to be prepared for long power outages if there are wildfires or extreme weather conditions in the coming months. Because the energy system, commonly referred to as a power grid, relies on power lines working together across multiple cities, counties and regions, power could be shut off in San Benito County far from any fires or adverse weather.
This move is a result of the Camp and Woolsey fires last year in Paradise that killed 86 people and burned 153,336 acres in Butte County from Nov. 8-25. PG&E filed for bankruptcy after estimating lawsuits could exceed $30 billion.
“We realize the risks of turning off the power as much as the risks of leaving it on,” said Jeff Smith, a PG&E spokesman. “With all the recent fires in California, PG&E looked into ways to respond. It’s not something we take lightly because we know our customers depend on having power.”
As part of its Community Wildfire Safety program, PG&E’s customer preparedness message says that under its Public Safety Power Shutoff program, in the case of extreme fire or weather conditions, it may be necessary to turn off electricity. Before a shutoff, though, the company will review a combination of criteria, such as predictions of strong winds and low humidity levels, along with critically dry vegetation and on-the-ground observations.
The company says it will attempt to contact customers by text and email before a shutoff. Updates will come through social media, local news and the PG&E website. After visual inspections for damage, power could be restored within 24 to 48 hours after an incident has passed. However, because wildfires can go on for weeks, PG&E recommends customers be prepared for outages that could last much longer.
Hollister City Councilman Marty Richman told BenitoLink, “This is PG&E’s answer to the state wanting to charge them billions of dollars for starting fires, so they’re telling the state: ‘You don’t want any fires, we’ll just shut off the power.’ They should have known that the lack of maintenance of areas around the lines would cause them to be a fire hazard. Unfortunately, their customers are going to end up paying higher rates.”
Hollister Fire Chief Bob Martin Del Campo told BenitoLink that if the power grid goes down, the city has a number of backup generators in place and is purchasing more to keep government offices open. He said San Juan Bautista still needs to get generators, and that Hazel Hawkins Memorial Hospital can function on its own backup generators.
Martin Del Campo said the city learned from the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake that it was not prepared for a catastrophic incident. Afterward, he said Hollister secured funding from the federal government to purchase industrial-sized generators.
“Right now, because we’ve got three [fire] jurisdictions, we have a generator configuration being looked at in San Juan Bautista,” he said, adding that the Hollister Municipal Airport has its own generator because if there’s a significant blackout or earthquake, it will function as a staging area or point of distribution for emergency services.
“If power went down today, Hollister would be online,” Martin Del Campo said. “The only major concern would be to establish a refueling pattern for the generators.”
While the city and county governments would be able to operate in the event of a blackout, the fire chief said residents need to know that if cell towers also lose power their cell phones will be useless. He said if people want to call for emergency assistance or reach people outside of the area, they will need to go “old school” with a landline, which does not depend on electricity. He said he has not had a landline for 10 years, but because of the possibility of blackouts or other catastrophic events, he plans to install one in his home.
In the event of cell service outage and no landline access, people will need to go to the nearest fire station, Martin Del Campo said. He doesn’t want to add to any traffic congestion, so firefighters and emergency medical service personnel will stay at the two stations in Hollister (110 Fifth St. and 2240 Valley View Road), one at the airport (60 Airport Drive), and one in San Juan Bautista (24 Polk St.) waiting for calls and people.
“We’ll probably be going out on a considerable amount of medical calls,” he said. “There’s in-home care [recipients] who depend on oxygen equipment that uses electricity. I can anticipate, and planned for, the deployment of fire service resources to the convalescent centers on Sunset Street.”
In a twist of interdependent technologies, 911 emergency service can continue to operate if Santa Cruz County, which handles dispatch services for San Benito County, has power. Because repeater towers in San Benito County have backup generators, 911 dispatchers can receive calls, but if cell service is down, landlines will be the only way to reach them.
PG&E says that to be prepared, customers should:
- Update contact information by visiting its alerts webpage or calling 1-866-743-6589 during normal business hours.
- Plan for medical needs, such as medications that require refrigeration or devices that need power.
- Build or restock emergency kits with flashlights, batteries, first aid supplies and cash.
- Know how to manually open garage doors.
For more information on PG&E’s wildfire safety efforts and public safety power shutoffs, including details of upcoming open houses and informational webinars in San Benito County, go to its wildfires safety webpage.
For local emergency preparedness organizations, go to the San Benito County Office of Emergency Services webpage.
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