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Sonoma County develops plan for PG&E blackouts during fire weather

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Sonoma County has developed a comprehensive plan to coordinate local resources when PG&E cuts power during high-risk fire weather, a document officials say is the first of its kind in the state.

In an attempt to prevent wildfires, PG&E announced this year it would for the first time proactively shut off electricity when high winds, low humidity and warm temperatures create conditions conducive to fires.

State investigators blame PG&E’s electrical equipment for sparking 17 major fires last year.

Intentional power outages, however, create the potential for public and health safety issues in Sonoma County, officials said.

“Ironically, by trying to prevent one disaster, it creates a smaller disaster,” Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said Tuesday.

Among other concerns, power cuts could limit the ability of agencies to issue alerts to residents using internet or wireless data, interrupt traffic signals, water pumps and treatment facilities, and impact those who depend on certain types of medical equipment, according to the county’s plan.

PG&E will attempt to contact public safety agencies and local governments about shutdowns before it notifies customers, spokeswoman Deanna Contreras said.

The utility tries to notify customers about 48 hours before a potential shutoff, with a follow-up a day in advance and right before power is cut.

Customers who use electricity to power life-saving medical equipment receive an extra layer of notification, she said.

Work to develop the county’s plan began in July, with a draft sent to stakeholders Oct. 6, said Christopher Godley, the county’s interim emergency services manager.

“This may be perceived as being overly cautious, but you rarely get caught short by being too proactive,” he said.

According to the protocol, once Sonoma County emergency managers hear about a potential outage, a countywide conference call with cities and local agencies is initiated to discuss weather forecasts, potentially impacted areas, and plans for public communication, including sending alerts to residents in areas impacted by red flag warnings.

Staffing levels will be increased, and depending on the severity of the incident, the plan lays the framework for a wide range of departments to open shelters, activate a public information hot line, and support the transportation of people with service needs.

Questions remain about what services the county would provide, but a game plan is in place if it needs to step in, Godley said.

“If we take 50,000 customers off power, it’s going to take a while for PG&E to inspect every line (and restore power). We want to be in a position to say, the power is out for two to four days, now how do we deal with things like hospice care and freezers going bad?” Godley said.

Godley said the county brought on extra staffing and sent alerts in October, when the utility turned off power to more than 17,000 customers in Sonoma, Napa and Lake counties, including 400 in Sonoma County. A second shutoff planned in November was called off.

The October experience underscored the need for better and earlier communications from PG&E about specific areas that would be impacted, he said. Supervisor Shirlee Zane called for more specificity and notifications from the utility Tuesday.

“We just want to protect our citizens, and more information and more education would be helpful to them,” she said.

PG&E is “committed to getting better at this” and is working to provide emergency agencies with more details, maps and frequent updates on potential outages, Contreras said.

The utility currently doesn’t have plans to reimburse local governments for costs associated with responding to a power outage, Contreras said.

Hopkins said counties must work together to change that.

“We need to join arms with all the other counties that are likely to experience de-energization to make sure this isn’t one of those things where they make the decision and we’re left to pick up the bill,” she said. “We’re not going to let people die — we’re not going to not establish an emergency center. And yet because it’s not a declared disaster, we have no ability to draw down state and federal reimbursement funds. It will be on the backs of local governments. We’ll be the ones people call when the power goes out.”