At 3 p.m. on Sunday, Ron Carruth got a phone call: PG&E was warning that parts of the El Dorado Union High School District could lose power later in the day.
The next alert came at 6 p.m.: The grid shut-off “was 100 percent going to happen.”
And that became a reality around 9 p.m., he says, when three high schools and the district office were left powerless.
This also left the district without a bus or access to phone and email, and with an impaired food-delivery system. That’s why the superintendent called off school on Monday for all 7,000 students.
“[PG&E] couldn’t assure us we would have power throughout the first portion of the day,” said Carruth, who added that the utility company said it couldn’t get the power back on until after all the lines were visibly inspected.
Strong winds, low humidity and dry vegetation are normal in California during the fall. But on Sunday night, these fire conditions caused PG&E to cut power to customers in Amador, El Dorado, Calaveras and parts of Placer counties. Residents in California’s wine country also lost power due to these conditions.
PG&E spokesperson Paul Doherty said it was the first time the utility has made the decision cut power to more than 42,000 customers in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. He added that there have been a few instances in the past months when the utility almost acted to shut off the power “to ensure the safety of our communities and customers.”
He says the utility can call a “Public Safety Power Shutoff” when red flag warnings are in place, humidity levels are below 20 percent, winds are more than 25 miles-per-hour and wind gusts are 45 MPH or higher. PG&E also considers ground conditions, such as the type of terrain and dry fuels that could help a fire grow.
Doherty says PG&E aims to contact its customers by text, phone and email 24 and 48 hours in advance of a power shut-off, and right before the shut-off takes place.
PG&E is unsure whether a shut-off will happen again. But if conditions are right, Doherty did not rule it out.
“As we see this threat of year-round wildfires — this new normal of wildfires in California — we know we have to do even more in partnership with our customers, our communities, and our own operating practices,” Doherty said.
He added that crews are inspecting lines on Monday, and advised all customers to update contact information to ensure they are notified.
Some customers say they didn’t get PG&E’s notifications, which caused confusion.
On Twitter, Carma Zisman wrote that there was “no notice to residents or businesses in Amador City. No power = no water + no internet for 1000s of rural residents . . . disturbing way to be kept “safe.”
No notice to residents or businesses in Amador City. No power = no water + no internet for 1000s of rural residents also not covered by most main news outlets in Sacramento or Stockton. Disturbing way to be kept “safe” by/from @PGE4Me Are you covering this @kcranews @CapRadioNews— Carma Zisman (@carmamuir) October 15, 2018
Will Collins from Placerville County wrote on Twitter that the winds were calm, “yet our power remains off.” He wrote the shut-off caused him around $300 worth of spoiled groceries.
I live in 95667. There is no wind here, & it’s been calm all night, from the moment the power was cut. Yet our power remains off. We have no medical issues here, as I’ve heard from others, but we went shopping & now have $300 worth of spoiled groceries.— Will (@willcollins32) October 15, 2018
The weather conditions that lead PG&E to shut off electricity to tens of thousands of Northern California customers on Sunday are forecasted to stick around. A red flag warning is in place for the Sierra Nevada foothills and Southern California through Tuesday morning at 11 a.m.
National Weather Service meteorologist Bill Rasch added that the weather pattern will be around through the weekend, “for sure down in Southern California,” although he added that he wasn’t sure what might have triggered PG&E’s warning.
He also said it’s not uncommon in the fall for fire danger to increase with windy conditions.
“We could have one or two events like this again, but right now it looks like it shouldn’t be as bad as it was over the last two, but we’re certainly not out of the woods,” Rasch said.
El Dorado Union High School District superintendent Carruth described the shut-off as an “interesting scenario," but said that everyone in his communities is “adjusting to the consequences, and curious to see if this is going to be an ongoing practice or a short-term solution,” he said.
He says the day-of notification was enough to help inform families, but more time would have allowed the district to possibly keep some schools open.
“A classroom can function without light,” Carruth said. “But if you think about automatic flushing toilets that are dependent on energy, that changes the situation dramatically.”
He says he'll ask the state for a waiver for funding lost due to the closure.
“This is a new world for us, and something we are trying to evaluate going forward,” Carruth said.
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