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My multi-day PG&E power shut off diary

PG&E and AT&T stupidity has devastating effects on everyone near where I live

The first time PG&E tried to burn my house down, it was September, 2007. I was at work, and the CFO ran into my office shouting “I think I just saw your house on fire from the Channel 5 news helicopter.” A transformer had blown less than a quarter mile up the road, and we were lucky the wind was blowing the other way. Several days later, we were allowed to go home. PG&E was fined, the owners of the property the transformer was located on (not us) settled, but things like our slurry-seal roads being trashed only 2 years (from the weight of the fire fighting equipment) never got fixed. I always buy the “all you can eat wheel alignment” plan at Wheelworks (Hi Jeff). He does not make money off of me.

The last fire P&E started near my home was the day after the Paradise fire, and we were trapped. There was a live line in the road which PG&E wouldn’t “de-energize” (their term for shutting off a power line) until the first responders arrived. That took 45 minutes, during which time we had little in the way of updates which was beyond nerve wracking. I was then I was escorted out with hoses being sprayed over my car and spent the night at relatives.

And there was a third fire in between the first two without quite as much drama. The common denominator? A combination of PG&E incompetence, and PG&E placing greed over safety. They failed to sufficiently clear brush or cut trees, had faulty equipment, and clearly do not give a damn about people’s safety regardless of what their commercials say. But they had no problem paying out exorbitant executive bonuses in the twelve years they were responsible for three fires near my home. PG&E’s bad actions combined with their lack of prevention screams louder than any words ever could.

My experience is likely exacerbated by the fact that I’m a type 1 diabetic and an electric wheelchair user with a fridge full of very expensive medication. While PG&E has a “medical electricity” rate, it takes so much paperwork that most people whose only need is to charge a wheelchair don’t bother. It is because of the totality of these experiences that I have borderline PTSD with respect to fire. This is true for many people with disabilities.

PG&E calls these events PSPS which stands for Public Safety Power Shutoff. PSPS sounds a lot nicer than “we screwed up and didn’t do our job so we had to cut your power so we don’t kill you”. During the first PSPS two-and-a-half weeks ago, PG&E’s website crashed repeatedly. When it was up, information pertaining to outages was frequently wrong, and even when it was right, it couldn’t be accessed by people with disabilities who used assistive technology such as those who used screen readers or switches. PG&E never responded to my email (God forbid they admit they **cked up) though amusingly I hear through a friend-of-a-friend that a large accessibility consultancy that I previously worked for received a significant contract to remediate PG&E’s emergency web pages.

Over the years since 2007, my husband and I have had the privilege to spend tens of thousands of dollars compensating for PG&E’s recklessness, attempting to make our home more fire-resistant and improving our chances in an evacuation. We have steel roofs on all of our buildings and the main house has fire sprinklers and can be partially powered by generator. We’ve put in tanks that hold 21,000 gallons of water with pipestands that fit the local fire truck hoses. We have fire foam that can be sprayed on the house when we leave, a trailer that can hold both of our horses, and an automatic transmission truck (in case I am the only one at home when a mandatory evacuation is announced). We support the local volunteer fire department. We cut down dead trees and keep the decks clear. In addition to the capital costs, we spend a ton of money on propane for the generator we have that keeps part of the house powered during our many, many outages. Our power is out usually another 6–10 times per year in addition to the recent PSPS events. We also have redundant satellite internet.

PG&E reimbursement? Exactly zero. PG&E concern? Less than zero.

T minus 5 days

  • Weather people start projecting wind storms. I stop buying things that require refrigeration and buy some powdered and boxed milk. We talk to someone who keeps their horse with us about bringing up her trailer, and hook up our trailer to our truck, then turn them around so they are facing the road in case a hasty exit is required.

T minus 3 days

  • I leave my wheelchair charger at office, and take emergency insulin to places that should be safe from power outages.
  • A neighbor calls to arrange for early refills on our propane tanks (to power the generator)

T minus 1 day

  • We run the water through the roof sprinklers and also in the riding rings and the corral to wet the sand.
  • Charge all our devices, power all our bricks.
  • Husband (as part of CERT, Community Emergency Response Team) does a canyon census and updates the phone numbers and emails for all the residents.

Original estimate (Saturday Oct 26th 5 pm)

  • Evacuation notices for Sonoma, Healdsburg, and Windsor play during the World Series in both English and Spanish every 30 minutes. But nothing happens at my house, next emergency announcement says our area’s outage has been postponed until 7 pm

Oct 26th, 7 pm

  • Nothing happens, next emergency announcement says our area’s outage has been postponed until 9 pm. The family discusses evacuation routes, update the contents of our go-bags and leave them in the car, and where we would go if we see a fire and can’t get out. The culvert under our driveway is the best bet, but we aren’t positive that I would be able to make the 3 foot jump down without injury. I silently think to myself that if it gets to us having to get in the culvert, breaking all the bones in my feet will be the least of my problems.

Oct 26th, 8:43 pm

  • Power goes out. We leave our blackout curtains open so we might be woken by fire if it could be seen through our window. We have discussed having one of us awake 24×7, but neither my husband nor I do well when sleep deprived so this is the best we can do.

Oct 26th, 10:43 pm

  • Closest cell access to our house is five miles away. Our house phone line goes dead because the phone box at the end of the road requires electricity and only has a two-hour backup power supply. Again, the root cause is straight up greed. Multiple requests have been made for AT&T to upgrade the batteries, but they have so far completely refused to do so. Our phone wiring pre-dates WWII and the lines are NOT working more than they work. When you know your utility repair workers by name (Hi Carlos, I know you are trying but I still hate your employer, come by if you want coffee or need to use the restroom) it’s not a good thing. Fiber is too good for us apparently, though AT&T gets $2000 per household per year (about $84,000 annually) since we are a “hard to provide service area”, in addition to the monthly bills we pay which only get prorated for outages when we call and complain.
  • Because our cell phones require internet, the ham radio phone patch is the only way we can report emergencies. But it’s not like calling 911 and having first responders showing up 4–6 minutes later. It takes however long it takes to get to our house (5 to 18 minutes), 5 minutes to place the call, and 18 minutes if you are lucky for the police or fire to arrive.

T+1 8 am

  • Fridge is at 40 degrees, so we turn the generator on during the day time to keep the fridge, freezer, microwave and internet going. We switch to satellite internet since our primary internet which relies on power on the ridge is out.
  • My husband unplugs the washer and dryer and plugs the furnace in so we can warm up the house. It dropped to the low 40s overnight, and obviously, we can’t use our wood burning stove which is normally our primary source of heat.

T+1 1:30 pm

  • Neighbor comes over, and we do our regular weekend tradition of swapping apples for fresh bread. She tells us Channel 11 has turned to 24 hour fire news. I can’t watch it. We plan to make sure that someone is up here all the time in case the horses and livestock need to be let loose to fend for themselves.
  • I update my photos from 2018 in case we have to put in insurance claims
  • My husband goes to check on the animals and comes back 30 minutes later, saying he heard six trees fall in the time he was out. Then he turns on the TV. Fires in Lafayette, Vallejo, and Crockett. My brain flashes back to September 11, where the news was paralyzing. Watching it made you feel terrible, not watching it made you feel worse.
  • The air quality is not terrible, but I wish I had restocked on N95 masks since last year.

I’m kinda glad my boss is in Barcelona right now, I think I’m going to be a little stressed next week. A lot of people have it worse than me, but the stress of repeated events like this over time can’t be good for anyone. And, we don’t expect our power back on before Tuesday.

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