By Raiza Giorgi
About 40 people gathered Sept. 23 at Los Olivos Elementary School to listen to Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) officials and local emergency management coordinators as they described how the utility’s Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS) could affect them.
Led by 3rd District Supervisor Joan Hartmann and county’s Office of Emergency Management, the meeting offered information about the potential for electrical utilities to shut off power during hot and windy weather in an effort to reduce the risk of wildfires caused by their equipment.
The PSPS is a new policy for California electrical utilities. It dictates that if extreme fire danger conditions threaten a portion of the electric system, a utility may opt to shut off the electricity to circuits that could be at risk.
Santa Barbara County experienced its first PSPS event on Sept. 7, when Southern California Edison (SCE) shut down power to 732 customers on the Gaviota coast due to extreme wind and heat. The power was restored to these customers within 24 hours.
“The goal is not to do PSPS, but as our monitoring teams get information about dangerous weather conditions it might happen. Although this is new for this area, this isn’t a new phenomenon, as other areas around the country shut down power for threats of hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding,” said Eric Daniels of PG&E.
He described the methods that PG&E uses to determine PSPS conditions and preventive measures such as inspecting infrastructure of the lines routinely, clearing vegetation around lines, and eventually replacing wood poles with metal in the coming years.
OEM officials recommend that people be prepared to endure power outages that could last multiple days. The office recommends keeping cell phones and portable chargers charged; keeping gas tanks full or electric vehicles fully charged; having flashlights and other lighting devices ready; having a hand-cranked or battery-operated radio to receive updates; and stocking five days’ worth of non-perishable food and one gallon of water per person per day.
The company also warns people who rely on electricity for life-saving devices and medical equipment that they need to have a backup plan with their hospital and medical equipment providers.
During public comments, Los Olivos resident Larry Saarloos expressed concern that the county required his home to be outfitted with fire suppression sprinklers and water tanks, but when the latest McMurray Fire came close to threatening his property, the electricity was shut off. That disabled the pump he relies on to get water to the sprinklers.
“With the electricity off, how are we in the rural areas supposed to use the fire suppression if the pump that works it runs on electricity? The McMurray Fire came too close for comfort and luckily the firefighters got a hold of it before anything happened,” Saarloos said.
Another resident asked about Buellton’s emergency response as the Buellton Senior Center has large refrigerators that keep food for hundreds of seniors and low-income people from starving each week.
To help solve the Buellton Senior Center problem, Capt. Matt Farris of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department said the fire station that is behind their facility can step up and help with providing power in case of a shutoff. They decided to follow up in the coming weeks about how to get that arranged.
Buellton Mayor Holly Sierra expressed concern about the lack of facilities able to take people who need electricity for their medical devices or if the weather becomes too hot. She said she would be bringing up the topic at a future council meeting to discuss options.
OEM officials told Saarloos to investigate having a backup generator to power the pumps for his sprinklers and said they are looking into other solutions for rural areas.
All the participating agencies encouraged people to register on their websites to be sure their contact information is correct.