Power Shut-Offs Loom as Fire Season Erupts

As a person who relies on a wheelchair, Danielle Anderson is all too aware of the extra challenges she faces should a Southern California Edison public safety power shutoff (PSPS) occur. During last week’s heat wave, the public utility warned customers, including thousands of Malibuites, that power could be cut should expected high winds appear. Luckily, they did not.

Anderson, of the Independent Living Resource Center in Ventura, which advocates for those with disabilities, and California State Senator Henry Stern participated in a virtual town hall Thursday evening to give guidance on how to prepare for a PSPS because the elderly and disabled are disproportionally affected by disasters.

Also known as intentional or planned blackouts, the controversial PSPS program, approved by the California Public Utilities Commission, allows electricity suppliers such as SCE to pull the plug on this precious resource in a high fire danger period such as a red flag warning. However, that is just the time residents may need it most—to receive electronic alerts warning of imminent fire danger. This is especially troubling for some of the most vulnerable—elderly and disabled populations.

With fire season now year ‘round, experts advise to have a go bag packed at the ready. However, some disabled cannot just grab a bag, hop in a car and go. “Make a plan now,” was a phrase often repeated during the Thursday, Sept. 10, meeting. Use family and friends as resources to help evacuate if necessary.

Back-up power is essential for those with medical devices. Assess the wattage you may need for any particular device. Seek advice from your local senior center or even SCE on battery options. Anderson and Rudy Gonzales, representing SCE, also urged those eligible to apply for SCE’s Medical Baseline Allowance. The program provides an additional 16.5 kilowatt-hours of electricity per day at the lowest rate to help offset the cost of operating medical equipment. Even temperature-sensitive people who need air conditioning could qualify and rules requiring a doctor’s note have been relaxed somewhat during the COVID-19 pandemic. SCE also provides a critical care backup battery program. Learn more at sce.com/residential/assistance/medical-baseline.

Ventura County’s experience with disasters, including December 2017’s Thomas Fire and Woolsey just 11 months later, has resulted in a robust office of emergency services. Its director, Patrick Maynard, urged residents to have multiple points of contact. Ventura residents may register with the city to get emergency alerts and register with SCE who will contact you by phone, text, email or even pager. The same is true for Malibu, whose residents should register with the city (310-456-2489 ext. 368 or publicsafety@malibucity.org) and LA County Sheriff’s Department (nixle.com) for emergency alerts, in addition to receiving them as SCE customers.

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Although some PSPS events have lasted as long as 50 hours, Maynard said, “The vast majority are very short in duration and Edison works hard to get your power back on as quickly as possible.” But keep in mind that once the fire event and winds have calmed, power cannot always be restored at the snap of a finger. It takes hours for crews to inspect power lines to ensure they are clear of debris that could cause an arc or spark once power is re-energized.

“If power is off, how are emergency notifications impacted by PSPS?” Maynard asked, and then answered, “Cellular telephone sites need back-up power sources. Now, cell phones, as we all know, are pretty much a necessity. It’s important they continue to work despite power being available. Right now, some sites have backup power. Some do not. With notifications sent in advance, it gives telcos an opportunity to get generators out.”

While many Ventura residents had cell service even when power went out during the Thomas Fire, the same was not true for Malibu during Woolsey. Even now, according to an email from Malibu City Manager Reva Feldman, “the city has tried to move this forward in Sacramento. However, the cell companies are protected on the federal level and state legislation cannot be enacted to mandate back up power on existing cellular sites.” Feldman said the city was continuing to advocate for cellular companies to provide backup power. Since Woolsey, though, the city has worked to enhance disaster alerts to residents, including enacting an analog system of notifications, including radio PSAs broadcast on KBUU-FM, loudspeakers in vehicles and “information stations” (wooden sandwich boards) with posted information, according to the city’s draft evacuation plan. Those boards would go up at the entrance to Zuma Beach, in Malibu Bluffs Park and at Las Flores Creek Park; in addition, the LA County Fire Department has agreed to post the same information in the Zuma Beach, Topanga State Beach, Will Rogers State Beach and Santa Monica Beach parking lots. There is also a project for a loudspeaker notification system currently out to bid.

Stern said he was “disappointed” the legislature didn’t pass more fire mitigation in this year’s legislative agenda, adding that when it comes to the next big blaze, “It’s not if. It’s when.”

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