Tips from PG&E on how to prepare for power shutoffs

• Update contact information by visiting www.pge.com/mywildfirealerts , or calling 1-866-753-6589 during normal business hours.

• Plan for medical needs, such as medications that must be refrigerated or electrical devices.

• Identify backup charging methods for phones and keep written copies of emergency numbers.

• Build or resupply an emergency kit that contains flashlights, batteries, first aid supplies, food, water, radio, tools, utensils, medication and eyeglasses if needed, and cash.

• Know how to manually open your garage door.

For more information about the shutoffs, go to www.pge.com/wildfiresafety or www.prepareforpowerdown.com .

For more information about guidelines for installing backup generators, go to www.pge.com/generators.

It’s the height of fire season with temperatures in the triple digits and Pacific Gas and Electric Co. just cut off the power to thousands of homes in Tuolumne County, possibly for days.

That’s a scenario local public officials and PG&E representatives are urging people to prepare for like an inevitability at some point this summer, as the utility rolls out its new “public safety power shutoffs” when the threat of fire is extremely high.

“They (PG&E) have told us to expect that they will” shut off the power at some point, said Liz Peterson, Tuolumne County emergency services coordinator.

The embattled utility, which has been blamed for several catastrophic fires in recent years that have caused death and destruction, got approval to do the shutoffs from California regulators earlier this year.

About 22,600 PG&E customers in parts of Yolo, Solano, Napa, Butte and Yuba counties were the first to have their power shutoff on the night of June 8, though most had it restored by the next morning.

Factors that are considered before pulling the plug include red flag warnings from the National Weather Service, wind speeds, humidity levels, and on-the-ground observations by field employees, according to PG&E spokeswoman Brandi Merlo.

The first shutoff by PG&E for safety purposes lasted for about 24 hours in October and affected more than 60,000 customers in the Sierra foothills, including several thousand in Calaveras County.

Merlo said the company’s goal is to restore power within 24 to 48 hours, though she encouraged customers to make preparations for up to five days without electricity.

“When we shut off for safety, we are required to inspect every foot of line before restoring power,” she said of why it could take longer than 48 hours.

Wide swaths of Tuolumne and Calaveras counties would likely be without power if the company had to shut down transmission lines that connect the grid.

One way the company hopes to speed up the process this year is by mobilizing inspection crews to patrol lines in segments and restore power to them as they go along, Merlo added.

The company is also working with county officials throughout the state to identify locations for large tents that would be erected by PG&E in places where the power is shut off.

Merlo said the tents would be air conditioned and provide a place for people to go during the day to cool off or charge the batteries on their phones, though they likely will not be suitable as overnight shelters.

Customers will not have to pay for electricity during the shut off, but Merlo said the company will not be paying any claims because the purpose is for public safety and notifications will be issued in advance.

The company plans to give notice to customers within 48 hours of a shutoff, followed by another within 24 hours and a final one within one hour. A warning about the possibility of shutoffs was sent out by PG&E to all of its roughly 5 million customers in May.

Merlo said customers are encouraged to make sure their contact information is up to date by accessing their accounts online or calling 1-800-743-5000.

“It’s impossible to tell when, where and how often we would do this because weather conditions are constantly changing, but it’s something we are monitoring and always preparing for,” she said.

Public agencies and private citizens in the county are also taking steps to prepare.

Peterson said the County Administration Center, jail, and several other county-owned buildings are equipped with backup generators in case of an outage.

The county is working internally on a plan for where to place employees who work in buildings that don’t have generators so they could continue providing services. They are also looking for facilities that could be used as cooling shelters to see if they have any backup power.

“If there was a need, we would do what we could to fill that need,” she said.

Jason Terry, an administrative analyst for the county, said the state Office of Emergency Services is also reviewing a request for a $145,000 grant to purchase two large generators that would provide backup power for the Animal Control building and Groveland Community Hall.

Terry said they anticipate hearing whether the request was approved within 60 to 90 days.

Sonora Police Chief Turu VanderWiel said the city also has backup generators to power its police and fire stations, but does not have the resources to provide any for the general public.

VanderWiel said his department anticipates an increased number of calls for medical assistance during a blackout from people who may have health concerns or electronic equipment. They are working with Adventist Health Sonora on a plan for those people.

The department also anticipates an increased number of calls from people asking about the outage, as they typically do when the power goes out, though VanderWiel urged people to contact PG&E and keep the lines clear for real emergencies.

Tuolumne Utilities District, meanwhile, has invested between $80,000 and $100,000 to purchase additional generators that are roughly $20,000 to $40,000 a piece, according to Ed Pattison, TUD general manager.

Pattison said the purchases were made in response to the likelihood of power shutoffs. The district also has 40-plus other generators to power critical water and sewer infrastructure, such as pumps, lift stations and treatment plants.

“People are going to be without power for a day or so, but they can’t be without water,” he said. “We also don’t want to spill wastewater everywhere if the lift stations go down, so we’re sure they’re protected as well.”

The district has inventoried all facilities, equipment that can be used to generate power, and educated field staff on what to do if a shutoff happens.

Pattison said they still need an additional 20 to 40 backup generators for powering the entire system, though it doesn’t have enough money to purchase them. He’s pushed for state Office of Emergency Services to purchase 100 or so that could be loaned out to utilities throughout the state.

“We’ve prepared as much as we can for an event,” he said. “The only now is waiting for it to happen for the first time, but we’re as ready as we can be.”

Callie Stephens, assistant manager of Tractor Supply Co. in East Sonora, said sales of generators have been up since the news broke of PG&E’s plans to do the shutoffs.

The store sells both portable and standby generators, though the latter they have to order.

Portable generators can range in price from about $200 to nearly $1,000 depending on wattage and features. They aren’t built to power an entire home, but can be used to run basic appliances like refrigerators, coffee pots, lights, and smaller swamp coolers.

Stephens said one of the more popular portable generators is a high-end one that can be fueled by both gasoline and propane, because the gas pumps might not work without electricity.

“I have one on layaway because I want to be able to run my fridge and cooler,” she said.

Renee Fuller, owner of Rez Solar and Electric Inc. on the Tuolumne Rancheria, said those with solar panels will likely also need a backup source of power like a generator because the panels won’t function properly without a source.

The company is working to install standby generators for all of the homes on the reservation, said Fuller, a member of the Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians.

“We have quite a few elders out here and we don’t want them to have issues in the high heat,” she said.

She said her husband had to complete a three-day course to become licensed for installing generators. A standby generator that wasn’t installed properly could backfeed electricity into de-energized PG&E lines and kill someone working on them.

Dennis Lafayette, of Lafayette Construction in Sonora, got into the business of installing generators earlier this year after hearing about PG&E’s plans.

Lafayette has been a licensed electrician for 40 years and recently became a licensed dealer of generators manufactured by Generac Power System. Each generator typically costs between $5,000 and $10,000, though there are a lot of factors that can affect the price.

“We design the generator to the need that the home or business might require,” he said . Installing generators was supposed to provide some work on the side for Lafayette, who also deals in real estate, but it has started to consume much of his time because of the high demand.

Lafayette said he’s sold nearly 20 generators at homes in Tuolumne County since May. He’s also gotten calls from people in Manteca, but he’s sticking close to home.

Another electrician that Lafayette spoke to said he’s sold about 40 generators this year.

“If you have an electrical license, your phone is probably ringing for generators,” he said. “I personally took this on to supplement what I’m doing in real estate, but it’s growing so big so fast it’s like wow.”

Lafayette said he’s noticed a shift in the attitude of people calling him about generators since it started warming up over the past week.

Where as people earlier in the year were more calm and inquisitive, Lafayette said he can sense the anxiousness growing in some of his more recent clients.

“I’m seeing anxiety, people wanting to get them now,” he said. “I’m getting calls from people who I can tell are emotionally invested. They are upset.”

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4530.



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