Parts of Berkeley are at extreme (red) or elevated (yellow) risk of wildfire. Image: CPUC High Fire-Threat District Map

This week, PG&E launched a new website to help customers prepare for natural disasters and the possibility of a public safety power shutoff event in the area.

“Could a public safety power outage affect you?” asks a prompt at the “Safety Action Center” website. “Yes. The grid connects us all. If you live anywhere in PG&E’s service territory your electricity could be shut off for longer than 48 hours.”

The website asks PG&E customers to update their emergency contact information — though the interface is a bit clunky and requires the creation of both a new account for the safety center and a new password (at least for this PG&E customer) on one’s original PG&E account. Once that’s done, however, the site appears to host a number of helpful tips and interactive features, from how to plan an evacuation route from one’s home, to a quiz about how to pack an emergency kit, to a guide on how to open a garage door if the power is out, among a number of other resources.

The site unveiling follows a July 16 presentation by the utility company to the Berkeley City Council where elected officials raised a number of concerns about the impacts on local residents of a power shutoff in the city. City leaders said they wanted to be sure people who need electricity for health-related equipment would have access to it, that cell towers would continue to broadcast a signal and that reservoirs would be filled by the pumps that rely on electricity to do their work, among other issues.

Councilwoman Susan Wengraf, who represents the northeast Berkeley Hills, said she was not satisfied with the explanations provided by PG&E during the presentation.

“I don’t think they’ve really explained to anybody how it’s going to work — and maybe they don’t know how it’s going to work,” she told Berkeleyside in August. “The impacts of their turning off power are so enormous.”

Most of Berkeley is in what the state considers the lowest fire-danger area, or “Tier 1.” But the eastern portion of the city, in the Berkeley Hills, includes “Tier 2” areas of elevated risk, as well as small areas categorized as “Tier 3,” or extreme fire threat conditions. PG&E says any of its customers could be affected by its power shutoff program but that lines in Tier 2 and Tier 3 zones are the ones “most likely” to be cut.

One of the biggest open questions is how Berkeley might be affected if PG&E has to turn off power to transmission lines in the event of conditions elsewhere. Wengraf noted during the July presentation that weather might be fine in Berkeley, but the power might still be turned off due to risks in other parts of the state.

“That is a possibility, but we don’t know. It all depends on the fire conditions,” said Darin Cline, manager of Public Affairs & Governmental Relations for PG&E in the Bay Area. “If we have to shut down to the transmission line level we will do that.”

Wengraf and northwest Berkeley Councilwoman Rashi Kesarwani asked for more detail and maps to clarify how Berkeley might be impacted during a transmission line shutoff. PG&E told council it has a “special portal” set up for maps — but that it can’t share it with the public “because of Homeland Security concerns.” First responders will have access to the information, PG&E said.

Last year, in the wake of deadly wildfires like the Camp Fire in Paradise that killed nearly 90 people, the state gave PG&E and other utilities the authority to shut off power in the case of natural disasters. PG&E reps told city officials at the July council meeting that heavy winds and humidity levels below 20%, among other factors such as “red flag” warning days, could impact the electrical system and necessitate a shutoff.

No weather stations in the city

PG&E said it has a 24/7 Wildfire Safety Operations Center in San Francisco where it monitors wind and weather conditions to determine whether a shutoff might be needed. PG&E also has a network of weather stations — including 11 in Alameda County — where it collects microclimate and precipitation data and monitors conditions — and high-definition cameras that also monitor conditions.

PG&E says it will install 1,300 new weather stations by 2022 with “a density of one station roughly every 20 circuit-miles in the high fire-risk areas,” Tamar Sarkissian, PG&E spokeswoman, told Berkeleyside. Currently, however, Berkeley does not have one within its city limits. Nearby weather stations include ones on Broadway above the Caldecott Tunnel, Grizzly Peak in Oakland, and Terrace Drive in El Cerrito.

A weather station and web camera are planned in Tilden Park in Berkeley, off of Grizzly Peak at Vollmer Peak, Sarkissian said. More weather stations are planned in the Berkeley area “in the future.”

PG&E told council the utility aims to begin public notifications 48 hours before a shutoff — but that’s not always possible, the reps said.

“The truth is that the last two situations we had in early June, we weren’t able to meet the 48-hour probability and that was because of the dramatic change in the weather and wind conditions,” Les Putnam, a senior public safety specialist for PG&E (and former Berkeley firefighter), told council. Those shutoffs affected about 16,000 PG&E customers in Napa, Yolo and Yuba counties, he added: “And we were at about 16 hours when we first started looking at shutting off electricity the second week of June.”

Typically, PG&E said, it doesn’t anticipate the need for shutoffs until the end of August or later, during the height of the fire season. The “trial run” with the June shutoffs, the reps added, was a wake-up call: “We realized that mutual aid between counties is something very important.”

Notifications are also set to happen at the 24-hour mark, just before the outage and throughout it, said PG&E. As systems come back on, there are notifications about that, too. PG&E says it aims to bring back electricity as quickly as possible once the weather allows it. But the process is slow.

“We have to actually have field personnel put eyes on the system and inspect every inch of the lines that were de-energized so that we can make sure there’s no damage,” Putnam told council, “because, if we re-energize while there is damage, it will potentially create a fire. We are obviously trying to avoid that. Once our eyes are on our facilities, we need to make the repairs for any damage that may have occurred and then we’re able to restore power.”

Cline said the amount of time inspections take has “been hard for a lot of people to accept.”

“Our status systems and everything that we use to keep everything safe while the electricity is on is now off” during a shutoff event, he said: “So it’s almost like we’re back in the 1940s.”

Putnam said PG&E has sent notices to millions of customers about the shutoff program asking them to prepare as they would for an earthquake. A huge piece of the preparation effort has been a push by PG&E to ask everyone to update their contact information so that they receive the agency’s emergency notifications.

PG&E said it will send field crews out during an outage to check on “Medical Baseline” customers — those who need electricity for life-saving medical equipment — if it cannot reach them during a potential outage. Community members in this position should sign up for the Medical Baseline program so PG&E can follow up, officials have said. Alameda County also has a list of similar individuals, PG&E said, and the state has given the utility and county permission to share that information. Local first responders will assist in the outreach effort during an emergency.

“There was a time that, [due to] a lot of the privacy laws we have here in California, we couldn’t share some of this information,” Cline said. “We were able to because of events like this.”

At the time of the July meeting, Cline said about 60% of its customers were aware of the shutoff program. He asked city officials to do everything they could to spread the word.

As part of its effort to provide safer energy, the reps said, PG&E has been inspecting its towers and repairing power poles throughout the system.

“We also are in future looking at hardening our system, which includes replacing wood poles with fiberglass, cement or metal poles, adding insulation to our wires, so we don’t get the slapping and arcing of the wires during heavy wind conditions — and then also creating microgrids,” Putnam said.

During a shutoff, PG&E said it plans to send mobile notifications to customers and use systems like Nixle, NextDoor and “reverse 911” calls to spread the word. The agency says it will also set up “Community Resource Centers” where people can come for information and to charge their phones. Officials noted that an outage might mean cell towers are down. PG&E said it is working with mobile phone providers to replace existing four-hour batteries with 12-hour ones and fuel up generators for the towers that have those back-up systems in place.

“I think that’s extremely important just to maintain basic means of communication,” Mayor Jesse Arreguín told PG&E.

As with earthquakes, PG&E said people should have radios available with batteries to keep them powered so they can get critical updates over the air.

PG&E said it has worked with the state Office of Emergency Services, San Diego Electric and SoCal Edison on statewide messaging about how to prepare for a shutoff. PG&E has also been working with city and county leaders to answer questions and develop its plans, such as where to set up resource centers and how to ensure its list of “critical customers” is complete.

PG&E says it also has surveyed hospitals to discuss how to keep their generators running and learn what the needs are there: “We feel pretty confident with a lot of the immediate things that you think of in times like this,” Cline told council in July.

What about the water?

EBMUD’s University Reservoir in Berkeley (file photo). Photo: Emilie Raguso

PG&E said it’s also been working with the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) to try to ensure reservoirs are full if the power is cut and that water is available for firefighting efforts and drinking. PG&E said the 48-hour notification should allow for at least a two-day supply of water.

Andy Katz, who represents Berkeley on the EBMUD board, said the panel voted in July to spend $400,000 on back-up generators for its pumping stations after getting word from PG&E in May or June about the importance of getting prepared in the event of an indefinite suspension of electricity.

“We have very little information about the operations scenarios and the relationship between the scale of a fire emergency and the consequent shut off,” Katz told Berkeleyside in August. “We just know that we have to be prepared — so we got prepared.”

In the past, EBMUD would fill its reservoirs nearly to capacity anytime a red flag warning was announced. After the PG&E announcement, EBMUD identified critical pumping facility locations and critical tanks for water storage and staged generators and portable pumps there. Three of those facilities are in Berkeley, at University, Berkeley View (where the Summit reservoir is) and Shasta Woods.

Katz said EBMUD will refuel its generators as long as the roads are open and the power is off. He said the board found the money in its budget because of the critical need to act, but hopes FEMA will provide “some kind of support for agencies that need to be prepared with reliable water supplies so that our water customers don’t have to bear the costs.”

In the event of a public safety power shutoff, EBMUD asks customers to turn off outdoor irrigation and minimize indoor water use until the power is back on. EBMUD plans to email updates to every customer whose email address is on file and post information on Twitter and Facebook.

During the July presentation, South Berkeley Councilman Ben Bartlett asked PG&E whether its bankruptcy proceedings would limit its ability to make its system less vulnerable.

Cline said that would not be an issue: “There’s not one time that anybody has said, ‘Stop system hardening.’ And so our goal, when it comes to system hardening, is that we know that that money is going to be spent. That is the first priority and that’s what we’re focused on every day.”

Southside Councilman Rigel Robinson was also interested in improvements to power poles in Berkeley. He said there are a number of poles in the city that are full of staples. That can lead to “dramatic” temperature variations and other problems.

“For decades people have been stapling posters or signs to these poles,” he said. “That apparently causes a significant effect on the structural integrity.”

Cline said PG&E is constantly assessing its poles for problems, but acknowledged that “we go through poles faster in urban areas than rural areas.”

“What we have is — what I will politely say — is ‘unauthorized attachments.’ And we get a lot of people that will hang signs and try to hang signs between poles and stuff like that,” Cline continued. “When somebody tries to climb a pole to staple a sign, you know, 10 feet up so nobody takes it down — that does affect the integrity of the pole.”

In his closing remarks, the mayor asked PG&E to “make a commitment” to meet with Berkeley staff, including the city manager and fire supervisors to ensure effective coordination going forward: “I know that they have a lot of questions,” Arreguín said.

“Our readiness is the most critical thing”

Dee Williams-Ridley (file photo). Photo: Emilie Raguso

Berkeley City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley wasted no time in creating an opportunity to ask some of those questions. She asked PG&E to meet with city and county leaders in Dublin the day after the Berkeley council meeting. A number of city managers and fire department leaders, as well as the state Office of Emergency Services, took part in the session.

“We’re very concerned about how this would affect our community,” Williams-Ridley told Berkeleyside. The utility is “doing a tremendous job” thus far in its efforts to collaborate, she added. But the state’s decision to give utility companies the authority to make such sweeping decisions has left a number of cities stunned: “We’re just all sort of responding. We’re coming to terms with what kinds of actions that we have to do.”

Key issues that came up during the follow-up meeting in Dublin, Williams-Ridley said, were to continue urging people to register with PG&E and AC Alert — to get text alerts and have time to prepare — and to get those in need of medical assistance on the Medical Baseline and health department lists.

“PG&E has a couple of proposed things for those folks that are needing care,” Williams-Ridley said. “It’s commendable but just a little worrisome. They may not be able to deliver if we have any major blackouts in the Bay Area.”

During the Dublin meeting, Williams-Ridley said, PG&E told city leaders how important the June shutoffs had been: While the power was off, the utility found five places where lines were damaged or needed some type of repair or replacement. Had those repairs not happened, larger problems might have arisen, PG&E had said.

One thing the city is working to determine is the best locations for Community Resource Centers should the need arise. Williams-Ridley said staff wants to stock those spots with water and power strips, and other things that might be needed during a shutoff — such as items that might be critical for people in the Medical Baseline program. The center will be different from a shelter, she added. It won’t be set up to provide food or places for people to lie down.

Choosing the locations hasn’t been easy, city spokesman Matthai Chakko told Berkeleyside.

“We’re trying to come up with it,” Chakko said in July. “It’s a tall order.”

“We’re talking about the potential loss of electricity for up to eight days,” he added. “That’s like an earthquake.”

The city manager said there’s still a lot to figure out but that Berkeley “has always been at the forefront” of preparedness. At City Hall, that has meant, in part, more than a dozen activations of an “emergency operations center” where departments work together to tackle challenges in the city: figuring out how best to deploy resources, communicate effectively and make tricky policy decisions. Williams-Ridley said, as a result of those experiences, the process is “well oiled now.”

“Our readiness is the most critical thing,” she said. “We will do whatever’s required to keep the community safe.”

Many questions remain

Neither PG&E nor the city could provide a number to Berkeleyside as to how many city residents have been identified as vulnerable due to medical issues. PG&E spokeswoman Sarkissian said the number is “constantly fluctuating,” and that PG&E is doing a lot of outreach right now and expects to see the numbers grow.

Sarkissian said Berkeleyside would have to ask cell providers about how many towers there are in Berkeley and what sort of back-up power they might have. PG&E is, however, working toward “the ability to be able to prioritize the re-energization of critical infrastructure (i.e. water systems, transit lines, hospitals, municipally-owned utilities, etc.)” in case of a shutoff, she said.

Sarkissian said PG&E is “not able to share information about specific circuits” for its distribution and transmission lines or provide any sense of the geography or radius that might result in a Berkeley shutoff.

Many community members have said all the uncertainty is unsettling.

Councilwoman Wengraf said she recently attended a planning meeting for a series of wildfire drills Berkeley is holding in August and heard a presentation about evacuation plans. The speaker advised motorists to avoid Marin Circle because circulation there simply can’t work without courtesy — which may be in short supply during an emergency. Wengraf said the example was alarming. She’s worried there could be chaos in Berkeley in the event of a shutoff due to all the questions that remain.

“We don’t have answers. We don’t know specifics. We’re not going to know how to act or where to go,” she said last week. “This safety shutoff has radically changed our resilience in the face of a disaster and it’s radically changed how we have to instruct people in what we have to do. It’s caught us off guard. Everybody’s scrambling.”

A few steps to get prepared

Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist...