SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Editor's Note: This article is part of the ABC10 Originals project FIRE - POWER - MONEY, a documentary series that breaks down California’s wildfire crisis into its core elements. In three episodes, we expose the reasons wildfires are deadlier than ever, how PG&E influences our politics despite felony convictions and being blamed for starting fires that killed 107 people, and what it’ll cost to pay for the damage and make California safer from fire.
PG&E's new plan for sweeping power shutoffs when conditions are right for wildfires has been a hot topic for weeks now.
While its goal is to avoid causing devastating fires, the shutoffs come with dangers of their own, as PG&E says they can last for days and impact hundreds of thousands of people.
To avoid the kind of loss of life and widespread destruction seen last November in Butte County, PG&E's new plan involves shutting down entire high-voltage transmission lines, like the one blamed for causing the Camp Fire. That means that even people who don't live anywhere near a fire danger area could still be without power for days since a single transmission line can serve an entire region.
PG&E says it plans on giving people 48 hours' notice before shutting off the power. This week, the state's Public Utilities Commission approved the utility’s plan but said PG&E has to work with the California Office of Emergency Services to join their warning programs, so PG&E can make sure their power shutoff notices are getting to customers through any means possible.
"When you shut the power down, a lot of cell phone towers and communication towers and things and streetlights don't have backup batteries, " ABC10's in-house wildfire and PG&E expert Brandon Rittiman said. "Communications get harder. It's harder to warn people if there is a fire.”
He presented a hypothetical situation in which PG&E shuts down a transmission line to avoid causing a wildfire during dry, hot, windy weather conditions.
“Great, we do that. Somebody flicks a cigarette butt out the window (starting a fire) and now it's harder to warn people because the power has been shut off,” Rittiman said. “Everything has a consequence. We live in a highly interconnected society that relies on the power grid."
Power outages are inconvenient at best and can be dangerous at worst, especially for people who rely on electricity to power medical equipment. The state told PG&E this week they need to better educate and notify the public, particularly vulnerable electric customers with disabilities, with language barriers, and who live in poorer, more remote areas with limited transportation or communication.
Shutoffs can also be expensive, if a fridge full of food goes bad or if a PG&E customer now faces having to go out and buy a generator.
"In some small communities, these shutoffs are going to screw up water,” Rittiman explained, “because you're going to be hot and you're going to want to cool off, and if you don't got anywhere to go, you're going to go outside and you're going to turn on your sprinkler. And if everyone in town is doing that at the same time, there's a concern that, like, water is going to be affected by the power shutoff, to say nothing of, like, pumps that charge it up."
RELATED: Q&A on PG&E power shutoff plan
So why will shutoffs last for days? Once the power gets shut off, utilities must inspect the entire line before turning the electricity back on; a process that can take days even after weather conditions improve.
PG&E says customers should make sure their contact information is correct in PG&E’s system, so they can be notified of an upcoming outage. They can do that at pge.com/MyWildfireAlerts or by calling 1-866-743-6589. PG&E also recommends people plan for medical needs in case they lose electricity and even know how to manually open their garage door.
The state is also requiring PG&E to do more preventive efforts, such as clearing brush and installing fire-resistant poles.
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