For the past month, county officials, business owners and residents have been meeting to discuss strategies to prepare for multiple days of power outages under Pacific Gas & Electric’s community wildfire protection plan.
PG&E implemented a “public safety power shutoff” for the first time last year that left thousands of Calaveras County residents in the dark for two days. The utility giant has since announced that it could shut its system off for up to five days at a time under dry, windy and hot conditions.
Between commercial and residential customers, PG&E has 31,700 energy meters in Calaveras County.
Some of the county’s initiatives for dealing with extended power outages will include conducting routine patrols in communities with vulnerable populations and opening resiliency centers with water, air conditioning and phone charging capabilities, according to Chad Cossey, the Office of Emergency Services coordinator.
If and when a shutoff is set to occur, a list of resiliency center locations will be made to the public and the Public Transit Authority.
“This is a work in progress because this is only the second year that these shutoffs have happened, so unfortunately there might be the unforeseen,” Cossey said.
Some county departments will have to move to locations where generator power is available. OES staff, in particular, would likely move to the Sheriff’s Office, although phone numbers will be the same, Cossey said.
Cossey recommended that residents keep cash on hand – since most card transactions are powered by electricity – in addition to a radio and batteries, as it may be one of the best communication options for receiving information from the county if phone lines go down. The department will use social media and duplicate efforts when PG&E notifies of a potential shutdown, and will work with Public Works to place road signs throughout affected areas if and when the time comes, Cossey said.
“This is going to be a change for everybody,” he said. “You’re not going to be able to have that 70-degree AC’d house and open up the fridge anytime you want … Everyone needs to take a hard look at everything in their home that runs on electricity.”
Kathy Gallino, the county’s economic and community development director, will be holding resiliency meetings with local business owners to discuss their plans for the outages. Details will be released as soon as they are made available.
The city of Angels Camp and the county are working in tandem on the issue, and plan on sharing resources if an extended power outage occurs, according to City Administrator Melissa Eads. She said the threat of potentially five-day power outages could have huge detrimental impacts on vulnerable populations, sewer and water infrastructure and the local economy as a whole.
“This is a big deal. You look at our retirement communities in high-heat weather conditions. How do we make sure people are able to access help?” Eads said, adding that the city is developing a communications plan to enable residents that don’t have access to a phone to get to a safe location. “We want to have an action plan for ahead of time, so if PG&E gives us an alert we can inform the community. We also have an infrastructure to maintain – police vehicles need fuel, radios need electricity. We need to be able to operate our sewer plant 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
Health care services
The Mark Twain Medical Center in San Andreas has a number of prewritten disaster plans for extended power outages and expects to keep vital services intact, according to Bill Wennhold, the manager for safety, security and emergency preparedness.
The hospital utilizes four gas-powered generators that can switch on within eight seconds to power 90% of its facilities.
“Some areas won’t have all the lights on, some computers won’t work, but critical services (like medical dispensers or heart monitors) will not be impacted,” Wennhold told the Enterprise in a phone interview July 2.
Mark Twain also has an agreement with a fuel company for regular fuel deliveries to keep the generators up and running.
That said, its clinics throughout the county are not as robust, and may require temporary closures and relocating of patients and supplies in the event of a power outage, Wennhold said.
Those plans have been executed in past emergencies, Wennhold said, with reference to the Darby Fire that sparked southeast of Murphys in 2001.
Calaveras Public Utility District Manager Donna Leatherman said the district is constantly monitoring the backup generators at its water treatment plant and for weather conditions that could set the stage for a widespread outage.
“I think we’ll be OK for the most part,” she said.
The Calaveras County Water District is asking its customers to conserve water if a large shutoff event should occur.
“This will help relieve pressure on the water and wastewater systems,” said Joel Metzger, spokesman for the district. “While we have backup generators for nearly all our critical facilities, there is a chance those backup systems will fail. Making sure our customers are conserving water during (outage) events will help reduce the potential of negative impacts on our system.”