SACRAMENTO – Cecilia Santillano faced a difficult decision last year before the power went out in her Simi Valley neighborhood: Ignore her monthly bills and buy a generator, or hope the batteries on her husband’s ventilators would outlast the next outage.
“If I didn’t have the generator and there was no power and no sign of it getting turned on, George could start passing away,” said Santillano, whose husband suffers from a rare autoimmune disease and is bound to a wheelchair. “They are expensive and I didn’t want to buy it, but I’d rather be safe.”
The power outage Santillano endured wasn’t related to preventing wildfires – she said it was caused by Southern California Edison maintenance. But outages like hers could become more commonplace and prolonged as California utility companies expand their use of intentional electricity shutoffs to prevent power lines from sparking wildfires.
Local leaders and public health workers fear that hundreds of thousands of vulnerable Californians, such as Santillano, could find themselves in increasingly dire situations. They also acknowledge there are wrenching trade-offs.
“This is a really tough situation,” said Karen Relucio, a public health officer in Napa County. “If they don’t shut off the power, you may have a county that catches on fire. But if they do shut off the power, you may have someone who dies because their respirator shuts off.”
Officials say the utilities have so far failed to properly warn people with accessibility issues or who depend on life-sustaining medical equipment and refrigerated medications, nor have they given public safety officials and local health services agencies enough notice prior to “public safety power shutoffs” over the last year.
Gov. Gavin Newsom vented his frustration with Pacific Gas & Electric’s handling of a shutoff in June, saying there “was no coordination and collaboration with the state.”
“They were in the office, quite literally, the next day and we had a very honest conversation about expectations,” Newsom, a Democrat, said. “We are working to make sure this is done appropriately.”
State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, called PG&E’s handling of an outage in Northern California in October “a hot mess.” The San Francisco company asked the Lake County Sheriff to sign a last-minute non-disclosure agreement in order to gain access to the company’s list of electricity dependent customers, caused a school to close that didn’t end up losing power and generally failed to communicate their plans, he said.
“PG&E was not at all prepared and they were completely disorganized,” said McGuire. “I believe they put lives at risk and we were lucky that we did not see any injuries related to those early planned power outages.”
Sumeet Singh, vice president of PG&E’s Community Wildfire Safety Program, admitted the early failures during a recent legislative hearing.
“We own it. I own it,” Singh told McGuire and other state senators. “I’m making a commitment that we’re going to do everything we can to ensure we’re satisfying the needs and the interests in regards to the information that our team really should be providing to you.”
Intentional power outages, especially those lasting a day or more, pose serious risks to some residents, particularly the elderly or those with medical issues. Respirators and other electronic medical devices can go dark. With air conditioning out, the chance of heat stroke increases.