Utility companies to use shut-offs to help reduce wildfire risk

California’s investor-owned electric utilities may de-energize lines or enact Public Safety Power Shut-offs to prevent their structures from accidentally sparking a blaze. Edison International photo

Mountain residents should prepare accordingly

According to statistics, California wildfires have become more destructive and deadlier than in the past. The threat of out-of-control blazes is more prevalent throughout the state and even the calendar year. Many of these fires have been ignited by electrical structures owned and maintained by utility companies.

This overall pattern has prompted state officials to take action.

The California Public Utilities Commission works with Cal Fire and the Office of Emergency Services to reduce the risk of utility infrastructure starting wildfires, to strengthen utility preparedness for emergencies and to improve utility services during and after emergencies. Interagency coordination and cooperation from the utilities is essential when the threat of wildfires is high, according to the CPUC website.

California’s investor-owned electric utilities – Pacific Gas and Electric Company, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas and Electric – may de-energize lines or enact public safety power shut-offs to prevent their structures from accidentally sparking a blaze under California Public Utilities Code Sections 451 and 399.2(a).

The CPUC, which has regulatory authority over all utilities, has made it mandatory that all utility corporations must take steps to prevent accidental ignition within their systems.

The Anza Electric Cooperative Inc. is also affected by these laws, and since the power coming into the grid in Anza travels along SCE’s lines, the cooperative is also subject to their de-energizing decisions.

Current laws now require public safety power shut-offs to be implemented under certain conditions as an operational practice that SCE and the AEC may use to preemptively shut off power in high fire risk areas to reduce the danger during extreme weather conditions.

There are a lot of factors that are considered before this action is taken, such as wind speeds, humidity levels and the condition of fuels in the area of the electrical structures.

The new laws also require utilities to hold public meetings regarding their wildfire mitigation plans and to keep customers informed as well as to collect feedback from them.

The CPUC works with the Office of Emergency Services, Cal Fire and first-responders to address potential impacts of the de-energization practices on emergency response activities, including evacuations.

The utility companies are required to warn customers of possible de-energizing at least two hours in advance. They must also notify fire departments, first responders, critical facilities, other potentially affected entities and the CPUC before de-energizing.

There are many things consumers can do to prepare for the inevitable power shut-offs coming soon.

Persons with medical devices that depend on power need to alert the AEC, so they can be put on a list for notification of impending shut-offs. Because power outages can’t always be controlled and the duration of the outage may be extensive, it’s important to maintain a sufficient backup supply of medical equipment that may needed during this time. Battery back ups are also recommended.

Communications may be affected by long power shut-offs. Old landline services generally continue to work with no electricity, but cellular phone towers can be affected for wireless devices.

Wireless customers may or may not have voice service in an outage, depending on the backup power installed at their carrier’s cell tower sites. The CPUC does not mandate backup power rules for this type of service.

VOIP users depend on their internet connection, and those with Connect Anza will benefit from the eight-hour battery back up provided by the AEC.

Consumers can initiate generators. It is a good idea to make sure the units are in working order and ready for any emergency. Whether mobile or built-in, generators can help keep certain household appliances working during a shut-off.

Be prepared with an emergency kit, extra water for people, pets and livestock, food, blankets, clothes and other important daily items. Medications for both animals and people is paramount.

There could be a possible evacuation, so be sure to have a plan in place.

Keep refrigerators and freezers closed to preserve the cold air inside them and keep food safe.

Have batteries on hand for flashlights and even medical devices and make sure they have a good charge. Be sure that electrical and communication devices are fully charged or that you have a way to charge them, such as a battery backup charger or car charger.

Residents can make sure they are signed up for local alerts with the AEC. For more information on the communication options, call them at (951)763-4333.

Keep vehicles filled with fuel and in good working order, in case of an evacuation order.

Check in friends and neighbors, especially the young and elderly.

The Anza Community Hall will be open and available with power and water in a shutdown event, provided that they get equipped with a generator, as they were during the Cranston Fire by the AEC. The Community Hall is a central location for news, charging, AC, food, water and connecting with the community.

The Community Hall planned to purchase their own generator, but obtaining the unit has been delayed for this summer’s possible power shut-offs, Community Hall president Noel Donahue said.

“Thanks to all the volunteer labor, provided by some community members, the Community Hall saved enough money out of previous grants to pay for a needed generator,” Donahue said. “We were only short the money needed for the electrical parts to interconnect with the building’s power and for an enclosure to prevent theft and vandalism. The goal was to raise the extra money needed from events like the Comedy Show and Anza Days. However, needing to spend roughly $2,000 replacing windows that were shot out has delayed the purchase and installation. Hopefully we can reach our fundraising goals soon and get the generator installed. During the Cranston Fire, the Community Hall serviced 1,500 families a day on average.”

The Cranston Fire was a good practice run and tested the resilience of residents, Donahue said, but with a little planning that experience can help make things run smoother the next time the power goes out.

To learn more about planned power shut-offs, visit SCE’s website at http://www.sce.com/safety/wildfire/psps.

To help the Anza Community Hall with raising the funds for their generator, visit http://www.anzacommunitybuilding.org.

Diane Sieker can be reached by email at anzaeditor@reedermedia.com.