Downed power lines are often the cause of a wildfire first sparking in places with a lot of brush and greenery, particularly when the land is extremely dry.
Power outages are more common during fire season for two main reasons. First, PG&E turns off sections of power on severe wind days in high-risk fire zones to help prevent sparking from downed wires. Second, during hot “fire” weather when air conditioning use skyrockets, the power system can get taxed, and PG&E will intermittently turn off sections of service to save electricity. Credit: Clara Mokri

Power outages

Why do power outages occur more often during fire season?

Following several high wind events on hot days that sparked fire from electrical equipment, Pacific Gas & Electric began in 2018 what it calls “Public Safety Power Shutoff” (PSPS) events. 

During a PSPS, PG&E turns off sections of power to lines that could be damaged by powerful winds. The goal is to reduce the chances of their equipment starting a fire, like the Tubbs Fire in 2017, the Camp Fire in 2018 and the Kincaid Fire in 2019. 

Planned outages are likely to occur during strong winds on hot, dry days. Weather forecasts help PG&E predict when and where it may instigate planned outages. 

Planned outages are also done to decrease power use statewide. During warm “fire” weather, air conditioning use skyrockets and California’s power system can become overloaded. 

In August 2020, the California Independent System Operator declared a Stage 3 emergency, indicating there was more demand for power in the state’s power grid than there was available supply. 

PG&E soon followed with rolling blackouts across the state, the first heat-related power outages in two decades. 

How can I find out if there is a power outage scheduled for my area?

Weather-related power outages begin with severe weather in the forecast. That can happen up to a week in advance. 

Following that, PG&E issues a “PSPS Outage Watch” when outages are likely for certain areas. Even areas not likely to be impacted by the severe weather could lose power because the power lines serving those areas extend to areas at risk. 

PG&E customers receive automated call, text and email alerts when a PSPS or other outage is possible. Whether or not you’re a customer, you can look up an address.

Lastly, there’s a “PSPS warning notification” before power is cut off. This can be for hours or days, depending on the severity of the weather event. When the weather has subsided, PG&E crews go out to inspect the lines and perform any needed repairs before power is restored. 

If you’re signed up for Alameda County’s emergency alert system, AC Alert, or your city’s Nixle alerts, you’ll get notified of PSPS alerts.

People who rely on electricity-powered medical devices can also get extra warnings of an impending power shut-off by signing up for PG&E’s Medical Baseline program

How do I prepare for a power shut-off?

If you live in an area more susceptible to a wildfire — a.k.a. the Berkeley Hills — you also live in an area more prone to power shut-offs that can last for days.

Here are several ways you can be prepared for any kind of power outage in your area.

  • Make sure you’ll have plenty of sources of light for nighttime that aren’t candles. Solar-powered camping lanterns can help reduce the dependency on batteries.
  • Keep flashlights in known places, checking now and then to make sure the batteries have juice. Keep a supply of extra batteries with or near the flashlights. 
  • Use candles only with extreme caution because of the fire risk.
  • Keep a charged cell phone handy.
  • Hard-wired single line landline phones will work when power goes off, but cordless landlines won’t. If you only have a cordless landline, try to get an alternative type of phone.
  • Keep a battery-operated AM-FM radio with spare batteries.
  • Buy a large cooler to store food when the power goes out and stock up on nonperishable food items. Put bottles of water in the freezer to use to keep perishable food cold. 
  • Keep a list of important phone numbers handy, including hospital, police, fire, friends and family. Put it on the refrigerator or a household bulletin board.
  • If you or someone you love needs power to run life-saving medical equipment, you may consider buying a portable gas-powered generator which can range from $400 to $2,500, according to Consumer Reports. Rechargeable power stations can also help charge personal electronics. 
  • Make sure your generator is installed correctly and that you know how to use it. Generators that aren’t used or installed correctly can be hazardous for you, PG&E workers, and utility equipment.
  • If you use life support equipment, plan in advance for backup, or consider staying with friends or family who don’t live in an outage area.
  • Turn off major appliances such as washer/dryers and air conditioners to prevent them from coming back on suddenly when power is restored.
  • Turn off heat-producing appliances such as stoves, ovens and irons before an outage to prevent fire risk when they come back on.
  • Keep your food colder longer by opening the refrigerator and freezer doors as infrequently as you can. Putting a plastic container of ice in your fridge when it’s off helps food stay cold.
  • To avoid opening and closing the fridge and freezer, try to eat dry and canned food during an outage, or takeout from outside the outage area.
  • Keep your computers and TV plugged into a surge suppressor, which helps protect them when power goes off and on.
  • If you have an automatic garage door, make sure it works manually when power is out, or park outside. But do not park in the street or block the road on Red Flag days.
  • Remember to reset clocks, thermostats, alarm systems and other electronic equipment when your power comes back on.
  • Consider getting a battery-operated weather radio, with a supply of spare batteries. Weather radios can emit warning alerts and public information.

My power just went out. What should I do?

The first thing you should do if your power is out is make sure everyone in your household is safe and has a flashlight within reach. 

Check in with friends and loved ones nearby to see if someone needs help. 

Keep freezers and refrigerators closed. A fridge will keep food cold for about four hours while a full freezer will remain cold for about two days. It’s best to eat the most perishable food first (and, yes, it’s all right if it’s the ice cream in the freezer) and put the rest in a cooler with ice. Throw out any food that reaches 40 degrees or higher. 

You should also throw out any refrigerated medication if the power is out for more than a day, unless the drug’s label says otherwise. 

Don’t use any gas-burning devices, like a camping stove or generator, indoors as it could lead to possible carbon monoxide poisoning. 

The American Red Cross recommends unplugging appliances and electronics to avoid power overloads or damage from power surges. It also recommends you evacuate your home if it becomes too hot or cold, or if you have medical devices that need power. Communities often provide warming or cooling centers and power charging stations.

The Berkeley Wildfire Guide is a collaboration between Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. The guide — first published on July 29, 2021, and last updated on June 7, 2022 — was written by Kate Darby Rauch and Brian Krans, edited by Zac Farber and Jacob Simas, designed by Doug Ng and illustrated by T.L. Simons. You can read a version of the guide tailored for Oakland residents on The Oaklandside.

Information overload can be an issue as you plan for emergencies. That’s why we’ve compared information and vetted sources for you, with the aim of providing only credible and recent information from trusted sources. 

Sources used in compiling this guide: CalFire, Berkeley Fire Department, Oakland Fire Department, FEMA, Alameda County Fire Department, U.S. Forest Service, National Interagency Fire Center, National Wildfire Coordinating Group, U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Weather Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Centers for Disease Control, Pacific Gas & Electric, East Bay Municipal Utility District, East Bay Regional Park District, California Fire Safe Council, Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, Community Emergency Alert Teams, State Council on Developmental Disabilities, University of California Cooperative Extension, Oakland Animal Services, Berkeley Disaster Preparedness Neighborhood Network, Hills Emergency Forum, Alameda County Office of Emergency Services, Oakland Firesafe Council, Diablo Firesafe Council, FIRESafe Marin, Public Health Institute, California Air Resources Board, Bay Area Air Quality Management District, American Red Cross, Kaiser Permanente, Mask Oakland, Zonehaven, ALERTWildfire, City of Mill Valley, City of Ross.

The image illustrating defensible space in the property section of this guide is adapted from the Wildfire Home Retrofit Guide (publication #SP-20-11) with permission from University of Nevada, Reno Extension and the Living With Fire Program.