Firefighters battling a five-alarm wildfire in the Berkeley hills, near Grizzly Peak Boulevard, in Berkeley, on Aug.2, 2017. Photo by David Yee

A new PG&E policy that calls for shutting off electricity during times of extremely high fire risk is upsetting some Berkeley and Oakland residents who fear it will make matters worse.

Others say the policy shouldn’t apply to neighborhoods with underground utilities, including areas rebuilt after the 1991 Oakland Firestorm.

And, in what’s become a lively discussion of the issue largely on a site started by firestorm survivors, still others think it’s a good idea.

The Public Safety Power Shut Off program is intended to help prevent live wires from igniting dry vegetation during times and in places of extremely high wildfire threat.  The program targets high-risk areas in, or near, open space such as swaths of the East Bay hills, including in Berkeley.

The program is part of PG&E’s Community Wildfire Safety Program, several measures of which were rolled-out in the spring in response to the state’s growing fire threat, which the agency refers to as both “climate-driven” and the “new normal.”

Many of last year’s devastating fires, including in the North Bay, were determined to have been caused by trees or branches falling on to PG&E power lines or power line equipment falling to the ground, according to CalFire, the state’s department of forestry and fire protection. Dry, windy conditions fueled the blazes.

But some residents of high-threat fire areas believe cutting power during a fire emergency will put them at greater risk of death or injury, leaving them isolated and unable to use computers or landlines for help, to charge cell phones, or to learn what’s going on from computers, television or radio.

“I am concerned about PG&E’s plan to shut down power in anticipation of a potential wildfire ignition. It is surely a well-meant gesture,” wrote David Kessler, a resident of Oakland, in comments to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC).

“Leaving elderly people without power is a dreadful and unacceptable program.” — David Kessler

“It is good that the utility is trimming trees that could potentially bring down a high voltage line. However, the likely fatal consequences of leaving a huge vulnerable population without electric power for several days is an unacceptable corollary of such a practice. Wildfires have historically started from numerous other sources. Leaving elderly people without power, and because of that, water, emergency services, the use of elevators and medical devices for several days is a dreadful and unacceptable program,” said Kessler, who lost a home in the firestorm, and rebuilt.

The CPUC regulates utility companies such as PG&E, and has adopted rules that allow shutoff programs in high threat areas during high-fire risk. The measure has been in effect in Southern California for years.

The commission also publishes fire threat maps, which are used by utilities including PG&E to determine fire risks. (Scroll down to find links to the maps.)

PG&E also has an online tool for checking your fire risk by address.

After the 1991 fire, residents who rebuilt or moved into fire zones agreed to pay PG&E more to underground power lines. Many are baffled that they now may lose power during emergencies.

Marcia Tanner, a Berkeleyside contributor who lives in Hiller Highlands, said one of the main sources of outrage is that neighborhoods where the power lines are underground, such as Hiller Highlands, would also be affected by the blackouts, because they’re all connected to the same PG&E grid.

“People who paid PG&E for undergrounding when their homes were rebuilt after the 1991 fire assumed they were paying for added safety, not just aesthetics. They’re feeling shafted,” she said.

Some accuse PG&E of enacting the policy simply to protect it from liability.

But Tamar Sarkissian, a spokesperson for PG&E, said the utility stands by the shutoff policy, which is in effect but hasn’t yet been enacted.

She called it “an important pillar” in the agency’s community wildfire safety program, and also “a last resort.” It “will only be used in the most extreme cases for the safety of our customers and communities,” she said.

Sarkissian went on:

“Our previous practice has been to turn off lines when directed to do so by Cal Fire or in the case of an immediate threat to the safety of our first responders, such as a downed power line. Years of drought, extreme heat and a record number of dead and dying trees are transforming the state and creating a “new normal.”

In light of this changing environment and last year’s wildfires, we are putting in place additional precautionary measures to help reduce wildfire risks and keep our customers safe. This program is one of those measures.”

Residents will get advance notification of a shutoff when possible, she said, with the goal of three notifications at 48 hours before power goes out, 24 hours, and again right before.

PG&E customers who depend on electricity for medical reasons can get special help during shutoffs under the agency’s existing Medical Baseline program, Sarkissian said. Customers need to apply for the program in advance online.

“We understand how important electric service is to our Medical Baseline customers and are doing direct outreach (letters, calls and door knocks, as needed) to be sure we can reach them if we need to take this step for safety,” Sarkissasin said. “We will also be reaching out directly to critical and essential customers in advance of turning off power, if conditions allow.”

Calling the community wildfire program a partnership between PG&E and customers, the utility is urging all customers, not just those with special medical needs, to update their contact information for notifications and alerts.

It also has tips for preparing for shutoffs, such as having stores of water and food, a household emergency plan, back-up methods for charging phones, keeping car gas tanks full or electric cars charged.

Other aspects of PGE’s new community wildlife plan include:

  • Monitoring wildfire risks in real time and coordinating prevention and response efforts from a new Wildfire Safety Operations Center
  • Expanding the PG&E network of weather stations to enhance weather forecasting and modeling
  • Doing enhanced vegetation management in high fire-threat areas to meet new vegetation and fire safety standards and, in the highest fire-threat areas, working with customers to create fire defense zones around power lines

“I’m glad they’re doing this. I think it’s probably safer if things get turned off. Honestly, when the fire came everything went dead anyway.” — Sheli Nan

As for neighborhoods with underground utilities, Sarkissian said if they’re in an area slated for shutoff, power will be cut.

Not all residents of potentially high-threat fire zones object to the shutoff plan.

Sheli Nan of Berkeley, who also had a house destroyed by the firestorm said: “I’m glad they’re doing this. I think it’s probably safer if things get turned off. Honestly, when the fire came everything went dead anyway. The house filled with smoke, lights went out, the telephone went out. I saw houses exploding everywhere.”

Nan added: “Everyone needs to have a cell phone and a contact. Trying to do it from a computer is a lost cause. It’s it that bad, it’s that bad.”

As people weigh, balance and debate PGE’s new strategies, a positive area of agreement is emerging: practical advice.

Ideas being suggested on the North Hills Community Association forum include:

  • Battery powered radios
  • FRS (family radio system) walkie-talkie systems for entire neighborhoods
  • Short wave transmitters

One member writes: “The latest technology must be explored for solutions. . . C’mon all you brilliant people.”

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Freelancer Catherine "Kate" Rauch has been contributing to Berkeleyside for several years. Her work as a journalist has encompassed everything from 10 years as a daily news reporter for the East Bay Times,...