Remember when power outages happened because a motorist slammed into a power pole, electrical wires were blown down in a thunder storm, or aging equipment finally gave out?

Those may have been the good old days.

Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric mailed notices last month to millions of their California customers warning that their power could be shut down this summer and fall at the discretion of the utilities.

The three power suppliers have developed a coordinated wildfire safety and awareness campaign to prepare Californians for what the companies say is the threat of extreme weather and power outages during times of increased wildfire danger.

The upshot?

"Energy companies turn off power to fire prone areas during extreme weather events as a safety precaution," PG&E said in a news release. "This is known as a Public Safety Power Shutoff. While Public Safety Power Shutoffs are more likely to occur in high fire-risk areas, all Californians could be impacted by emergency events and need to be prepared with a plan and an emergency kit.

These power outages could last "multiple days."

Georgiana Armstrong, who heads the county Office of Emergency Services in Kern County, said this new reality should be a wake-up call for every resident of Kern County.

"This is huge. The way we think about power outages definitely needs to change," said Armstrong.

"We all need to think about what we will do in a power outage of duration."

Having a flashlight and fresh batteries on hand used to be enough. But in an extended blackout, if you don't know how to manually open your automatic garage door — or you don't have the strength to do it — your car could be useless to you.

Your bank's ATM could be out of service, and credit cards may also be useless in an area of widespread outage, Armstrong said. If you don't have cash on hand, you may find yourself stuck.

"Gas stations may be closed down. Stores may be closed," she said. "This takes us to a time frame we're not used to."

People who are not mobile, or who rely on electrical medical equipment — like a C-PAP or an oxygen concentrator — may be at risk. And simply keeping medications at proper storage temperature could become a problem.

"We need to make sure our water facilities continue working and our wastewater facilities remain online," Armstrong said.

Will schools be open? Will cooling centers be operating?

Will dialysis centers be affected?

"The implications just keep rippling and rippling."

Some questions don't have easy answers.

Can customers who suffer lengthy outages be reimbursed for losses, such as food spoilage and the loss of other perishables.

Are there any special arrangements in place for the most vulnerable among us?

Janet Lee, an 82-year-old retired teacher who lives near Bakersfield College, said she received one of the notices, but she's skeptical and she hasn't taken any action as a result.

"It has to be about money," she said.

It's "politics," she said, about making PG&E look good in the eyes of the public, even as it cuts off their power.

Lee uses a C-PAP, which helps her breathe when she sleeps. It requires a reliable supply of electricity. She has other medical issues as well, and while she doesn't relish the idea of living in a sweltering home with no air conditioner, she thinks she would manage.

"Listen, I grew up in Taft with nothing," Lee said. "I'm one of the survivors."

Besides, her son would help her, she said.

The decision to turn off power will be made by each energy company and is based on a combination of factors, PG&E said. These include high winds, low humidity, dry vegetation and other conditions on the ground. Power outages could last multiple days, so it is important for everyone to have an emergency plan in place.

Energy companies will send early warning notifications via phone calls, text alerts, emails and other means before turning off power. They will also use websites and social media channels to share information and provide regular updates to local news and radio outlets.

"Wildfires are a real and growing threat in California," Denise Everhart, Pacific Division Disaster Executive of the American Red Cross said in an email. "Now more than ever it is critical that Californians be ready for the unexpected and prepare their emergency kits, download the Red Cross Emergency App, outline a family plan and practice safety drills before the need arises. Education, awareness and preparedness can make a difference in keeping families safe and saving lives."

Lito Morillo, director of Kern County Aging & Adult Services, said about 180,000 seniors, age 60 and older, live in Kern County — and that demographic is growing fast.

His agency is no stranger to planning for emergencies and sharing information with the public — but this is different.

"This is obviously a new phenomenon."

Planning for earthquakes has been the standard, he said. And while this is different, preparations are similar.

"Meals can be made available during an emergency through our Meals on Wheels program," he said. 

And because Meals on Wheels drivers often create a rapport with their clients, they can alert authorities or relatives when they suspect there's a problem.

"Of course, that's not going to cover the whole county," Morillo said. "There are a lot of seniors out there."

Armstrong said she was on the phone Wednesday with Southern California Edison. For her agency, planning is essential.

"We're scrambling," she said.

"These outages haven't happened here yet. I hope they don't."

Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.

(4) comments

ReefRanger

All these "Public Safety" power outages are is one more way for PG&E to shirk its responsibilities for maintaining the lines that run through areas of dense and fire-prone vegetation. Instead of spending the millions of dollars that it would cost them to send crews into these areas and cut back weeds and brush, as homeowners in these areas are REQUIRED to do (or be fined), poor PG&E once again gets a pass and screws their customers with the state's blessing.

dabonem

California is a third-world banana republic now. Get out while you can; it will only get worse.

Boogerface Nutter

After the horrendous fires up north, it certainly makes sense for the utilities to take such action. It's that or be held responsible for zillions of dollars in lawsuits. At least with so much solar power being supplied to the grid during summer days, there should be no issues with overload. If we could all afford a Tesla Powerwall, a power outage wouldn't be a consideration. That day is coming soon.

Boogerface Nutter

I think Texas is calling you.

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