Fire Season Could Bring Extended Power Outages

A Southern California Edison weather station on a utility pole on Las Flores Canyon Road, part of the utility’s process to determine conditions for public safety power shutoffs, or PSPS

The Pacific Palisades fire is a reminder that brush fire season is no longer just a fall occurrence. Fire experts have been warning that fire season is now 12 months a year in Malibu. Southern California Edison this week reminded customers during a webinar to be prepared not only with brush clearance near your home and home hardening—which it stated was job No. 1—but also to be prepared for its controversial and fairly new practice of public safety power shutoffs (PSPS). The program of intentional blackouts has been approved by the California Public Utilities Commission.

A PSPS is when SCE preemptively disconnects power in the event of a high-risk fire condition. The conditions may include, but are not limited to, dry brush, low humidity, high winds, red flag warnings or even an active brush fire. According to the utility, SCE contacts its customers and Malibu city officials typically 72 hours in advance to warn of a possible PSPS—though some of SCE’s blackouts in recent years have occurred with little warning. Sometimes Malibu has received no warning. 

SCE acknowledged that no one wants to be without electricity that is crucial for everyday living, especially during a pandemic and especially for vulnerable customers that rely on power for medical devices and other critical needs. In its presentation, SCE spokespeople stated a PSPS is used as a last resort measure to protect public safety to reduce the risk of danger during fire weather conditions. The electric system can become a source of ignition when blowing palm fronds, tree limbs, balloons—almost anything—come in contact with electrical wires. 

To mitigate the risk of fires, SCE claims it is hardening its infrastructure by replacing wood poles and insulating wires. The Malibu Times asked during the online meeting why wires are not underground—a common practice in other countries that has become a popular demand in the United States. 

“We do consider undergrounding as an option,” SCE’s Terry Ohanian replied. “We work to identify locations where we can underground. It provides meaningful wildfire risk reduction. The challenge here though is it can take much longer to construct.” Ohanian continued with SCE’s long-standing argument: “It’s more difficult to maintain and repair. For expediting grid hardening, we feel the option such as insulated wires can be deployed much quicker and make a much more meaningful difference.” Without real time face-to-face interaction, those tuning into the webinar were unable to challenge SCE’s position.

Another question was posed through the chat feature asking how to receive critical fire alerts without power. SCE’s Jill Anderson, senior vice president of customer service, answered, “I totally understand the distress of that situation of having limited or no cell phone or other kind of communication accessibility. One thing we do is work closely with our telecom companies that we serve. Prior to fire season, we go over with telecom customers what their resiliency plans are, where they have generators, what their mobile strategy is and then during an event we give them as much advanced warning as possible so if they have a location where they don’t have a stationary backup that they’re able to deploy a mobile generator. Another solution is a portable battery in your home. We do have portable generator rebates and battery rebates to try and help customers stay connected because we completely understand the urgency of that.” Vulnerable customers using life support devices may qualify for a medical baseline program offered by the utility. Check SCE’s website to obtain access to a critical care battery program. 

As this year’s fire season ramps up, it is safe to assume Malibu will experience more PSPS blackouts, as many neighborhoods—especially the Cuthbert Circuit, serving Point Dume, did numerous times in 2020. Last year’s California wildfires were the worst on record—five of the six largest California wildfires happened last year. An average PSPS event lasts 24 hours, but in Northern California in 2018 a Pacific Gas and Electric extended PSPS caused havoc and suffering; 70,000 customers went without power when the utility de-energized the grid in hazardous conditions. Food spoiled, businesses were closed and people were left without critical life supporting equipment. SCE reminded to have a ready, set go plan not only for a fire, but also for a PSPS.