MENDOCINO Co., 6/22/19 — As many Northern California residents have heard, PG&E is planning to shut off power in anticipation of fire weather, around the region, and these shutoffs may include portions of Mendocino County. The shutoffs will last anywhere from a few hours to five days, depending on the conditions, and residents of fire-prone (such as ours) should be prepare.
Representatives of PG&E have been giving presentations at local city council meetings, including one in Ukiah on June 19, which also included a discussion by the Ukiah City Council about that city’s plans for a shutdown (watch the full video below). PG&E representatives will give an additional presentation about the potential shutdowns at the Board of Supervisors’ meeting on July 9 and hold a community meeting about wildfire safety in Willits on July 19.
Prior to determining what areas will be shutdown, PG&E will assess a number of factors, and plan to give local governments, community agencies, and residents at least 48 hours warning when possible. These factors include “Red Flag warnings,” which are issued during high temperature, high wind, and low humidity weather events when the potential for fire is high. Residents of these areas who are signed up for notifications will receive a warning when the shutdown is planned. The utility has already implemented one such power shutdown event earlier this month in parts of Napa, Solano, and in the Sierra Foothills which lasted less than a day. However, shutdowns could last for up to five days, depending on the weather predictions, since PG&E waits for the conditions to change, then begins inspecting their lines and equipment before turning the power back on, which may take more time in this terrain.
In this article, we’ve put together details from the recent presentation along with a list of resources for people preparing for the shutdowns. Although some outages may only last a few hours, the remote nature of much of Mendocino County means that power restoration could take a while, which could be true in any other type of emergency, so we recommend preparing now. We’ve also included video from the PG&E presentation to the Ukiah City Council on June 19 featuring PGE's Alison Talbott, government specialist, and Dave Hotchkiss, public safety specialist.
Here at the Mendocino Voice, we’re making plans to coordinate with other local media outlets, including the community radio stations, as well as purchasing backup power equipment so we can make sure we can get the news out to you as reliably as possible — although communications systems may be impacted. If you’d like to support our efforts, you can check out our reporting equipment wishlist or become a member here.
Please note: to receive notifications from PG&E and local law enforcement, etc. on a cell phone, you must sign up with your contact information. We've included a list of these links at the end of the article.
PG&E has been found legally responsible for a number of wildfires over the last several years, and recently entered into a settlement with Mendocino County and eight other cities and counties regarding their role in those fires. However, PG&E representatives have emphasized that in anticipation of fire weather events, PG&E is now planning to shut down power prior to the arrival of wildfires, to minimize the risk of fires starting due to downed lines or faulty equipment. However, that means that a number of amenities — including refrigeration, cell service, internet access, ATMs, and gas pumps, as well as home medical equipment and more — may not be up and running during the entire shutdown.
PG&E has undertaken an accelerated inspection and repair schedule this spring in anticipation of the upcoming wildfire season, which also includes system “hardening,” which means replacing wooden poles with metal ones and covering lines with additional protection. This inspection and repair effort has uncovered over 1200 "critical threats" in PG&E’s equipment, according to an announcement from the company this week. Some parts of Mendocino County have seen recent short shutoffs recently due to this repair effort.
The utility company is also implementing a number of new programs, including wildfire spotting cameras in remote locations, installing the capacity for remote shutdowns on specific lines, and a pilot program that could allow for power to be routed to important community centers during a shutdown. So far, about 40 of a planned 600 cameras have been installed, primarily on ridges, and so far none have been installed in Mendocino County. Representatives also noted that the remote shutoff capacity is more useful during a storm than during a wildfire, at which point one would not want to send additional power to damaged equipment.
Homeowners should ensure that they’ve cleared adequate defensible space around their homes, of which Cal Fire has a set of recommendations. PG&E staff noted that some of their clearing will include the use of glyphosate, a main ingredient in Roundup, while making sure the areas around their equipment is clear. If you are a private property owner and would like to request no glyphosate be used on your property, call 800-PGE-5000 or work directly with vegetation management staff. Residents are also encouraged to report any damaged lines, poles, or equipment to PG&E — although several attendees at the Ukiah council meeting questioned why their reports of damaged poles or branches in lines, made more than a year ago, had not yet been responded to.
The City of Ukiah will be holding a community preparedness meeting on August 8. County and city staff emphasized that people should attend such trainings, read through the resources on local websites, and connect with their local fire safe councils and neighborhood groups to coordinate activities like checking on elderly neighbors.
Scope of the shutdown
There have already been several planned shutdowns during red flag warnings, and PG&E will decide on a shutdown based on a combination of different factors. Factors to trigger a shutdown include: low humidity, under 20%, forecasted sustained winds above 25 mph, wind gusts in excess of 40 mph, conditions of dry fuel, and on the ground observation, which can come from PG&E employees and contracted gas service to verify current local conditions. PG&E's Dave Hotchkiss noted that different districts across California will use different qualifications of when to call a “red flag warning” in that area. Much of Mendocino County is in what has been deemed either a “Tier 2” or “Tier 3” fire-risk area. Hotchkiss said that last year the utility was only focused on 3 tier areas, and power lines 60kW and below, however this year shutdowns may include everything from 60kW to 500kW transmission lines, which would shut down larger portions of the grid. This could mean that if high powered transmission lines in multiple parts of the state are shut down simultaneously, larger portions of the grid will go offline at once.
Hotchkiss pointed out that there are transmission lines that power Mendocino County that pass through both Tier 2 and 3 fire-risk areas, and that similar weather patterns could affect mutliple transmission lines at the same time. However, if there are other transmission lines, PG&E will attempt to keep power running to different communities if at all possible.
Shutdown and emergency notifications:
PG&E will be notifying customers who have signed up for notifications about planned shutdowns, beginning with 911 centers, and would let customers know 48 hours in advance when possible. The company will then notify people again 24 hours in advance, then prior to the shutdown, then continue to notify customers during the outage, and when power was anticipated to be re-installed. A few attendees in Ukiah questioned how they would receive alerts if cellular communications weren’t operational.
City of Ukiah utilities customers should sign up for emergency alerts with the City of Ukiah, because although the utilities are connected to the PG&E grid, people using Ukiah utilities will not be notified by PG&E. Reverse 911 can be implemented by the Mendocino Sheriff’s Office and other local agencies, but this will only go out to all landlines — people wishing to be notified by cell need to sign up to receive these alerts. We've included a list of links to different notifications at the bottom of this article.
Power restoration may take some time, since certified staff and contractors will inspect all the lines and equipment first, whether aerially, by vehicle, or manually, to ensure there are no damages, especially after high wind events. This may be especially true for smaller lines in more remote areas, Hotchkiss emphasized.
Communications and emergency response
Conmunications are likely to be impacted during a power shutdown as cell towers may only be equipped with backup power for around six to eight hours, although some towers, such as the one on Laughlin Ridge, may be equipped with a back-up generator. Residents should prepare for back-up ways to power their cell phone, as well as for cell service to be impacted. This may also include internet service. The City of Ukiah and county staff are coordinating with local community stakeholders, such as North Coast Opportunities, to establish a local call center to help with questions and assist residents.
The county and local municipalities are planning to have fuel and generators on hand to support back-up power for emergency responders and dispatch, operations at the airport, phones and radios, and will be coordinating with the local ham radio certified emergency network.. However, local agencies acknowledged that there is not currently adequate staffing for dispatchers, law enforcement, and local firefighters, particularly if there are multiple emergency events during a shutdown, or if neighboring agencies can not provide mutual aid. A number of county employees as well as City of Ukiah staff will be required to assist during these emergencies, but it is anticipated that a number of employees may not be able to to central locations depending on the circumstances. City employees will assist with setting up a call center, providing briefings on the steps of the Ukiah Community Center, providing traffic controls, and more. The city is also making arrangements for services with other community agencies such as the Mendocino Transit Authority, which could be able to transport people to cooling shelters.
PG&E customers who have electric medical devices powered as a medical baseline customer if they meet specific criteria. This program includes those customers in a specific database, provides discounts on electric bills, and will ensure that PG&E will contact you during a shutdown, and continue to contact by phone, door knocking, or additional methods until they receive a response, called a “positive contact.” In general, it is recommended that everyone have a back up supply of important medications in case of an emergency, as pharmacies may require electricity to power their computer systems and registers.
City and county are working with local hospitals, oxygen distributors, and dialysis companies to identify strategies for assisting people using home medical devices. During the Wednesday meeting, one employee of a dialysis company noted that the initial plan to move people to nearby medical centers may be challenging if widespread areas were out of power simultaneously. City and county officials are working to coordinate with these companies, and if is possible to power a cooling stationg, may be able to assist residents with refueling oxygen tanks.
Water, Sewage, Food, Fuel, and Solar
Cities around the county are preparing generators for their water and sewage systems, so officials anticipate municipal systems in Ukiah will remain working. The city may also be able to tie-in to adjacent water systems if necessary. More details about the specifics of the city's backup generator power and plans to expand emergency power generation can be found in the video.
People with wells who use electric pumps for water should look into back up options, and everyone should plan to store water as part of their general emergency plans.
The utility of solar caused some debate during the meetings, as only solar power systems will be useful during a shutdown. People with solar that is grid-tied without backup battery will not be able to use their solar power. However, those who's panels are off-grid with a battery should have power. City officials were not aware of any existing code which would prohibit someone running an extension cord from a solar battery, only one forbidden providing power from the Ukiah's electric utility to a non-customer.
Ukiah Mayor Mo Mulheren encouraged any residents purchasing a generator to make sure they follow all the necessary safety precautions recommended by the manufacturer. City officials were also unsure as to whether there were regulations around how much fuel could be stored in a residence, and planned to research the issue.
Some major grocery stores and other stores have back up generators, but it is unclear how they will operate during a shutdown, and electronic credit cards and readers may not be operations. In addition, gas pumps will likely not be working. Residents are encouraged to keep cash on hand, purchase shelf stable food, and keep their gas tanks full as part of their emergency planning.
City officials noted on Wednesday that since a power shutdown is not considered an emergency, there is unlikely to be state or federal funds like FEMA available to reimburse losses during those times. This will impact the city and county, which will need to spend funds of emergency preparations, and a loss of revenue for the utilities district — as ratepayers will not be charged during that time. City officials estimated $150,000 in costs per shutdown, which does not include revenue losses.
There will also clearly be an impact on local businesses, who may not be able to operate, and people who can’t work, or require daycare which is closed, etc. ATM services and credit cards services may not be operational, and so residents should put aside cash, as some businesses will not take checks.
- CPUC Fire risk map
- Cal Fire Red flag warning map
- MCSO emergency notifications
- Mendocino Sheriff Facebook
- CalFire Mendocino Twitter
- City of Ukiah shutdown resources page
- City of Ukiah Nixle
- City of Fort Bragg Nixle
- City of Willits Nixle
- Cal Fire Readyforwildfire Resources
- Firesafe council information - Mendocino County Firesafe Council and Neighborhood Councils
- Mendocino Voice statewide wildfires map
- PG&E information and the resources public safety shutdown program
- PG&E outages map and report an outage page
Sign up for PG&E notifications for your area
PG&E vegetation management information
- PG&E wildfire program information
- PG&E wildfire safety meetings - Willits, July 19
- PG&E medical baseline program
Here’s information about air quality: