Kevin Courtney

Kevin Courtney is city editor of the Napa Valley Register.

Going into fire season, Cheryl and I are in a mild funk.

We got a PG&E letter a week ago warning of power shutoffs this summer when the electric system is threatened by extreme fire conditions.

These shutoffs could last several days, not several hours, which is long enough for everything you hold dear in your freezer to melt and in your refrigerator to spoil.

And no hot showers!

At first I assumed PG&E had mistakenly targeted the Courtneys — that the letter was meant instead for customers who live on mountain tops or in the midst of chaparral that turns bone dry in summer.

Those people aren’t us. We live in the city. We have a fire hydrant just across the street.

Turns out I was wrong. We’re in PG&E’s crosshairs too.

Virtually any customer living anywhere may be cut off, PG&E said. It all depends on whether the transmission lines that feed your city or neighborhood go through high-risk areas.

Cheryl freaked. No way can we last two or three days without power. No hair dryer, no lights, no streaming, not to mention two refrigerators packed with perishables.

Her solution: Buy a generator for when the grid goes down.

I wasn’t so sure. What do we really know about generators? If installed ineptly, can’t they kill you? I needed more time for my panicked brain to sort things out.

I understood why PG&E, having been blamed for Atlas, Partrick and Nuns fires in Napa County in 2017 and the historic, Hiroshima-like Camp Fire in Paradise last year, would need a new strategy for not burning down more towns in coming fire seasons.

“Public safety power shutoffs” just might do the trick. No electricity, no electricity-caused fires.

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Then again, downtown Napa dark for days? All of Browns Valley? Is that what we’re talking about?

PG&E won’t answer such questions. We are ALL to be ready for whatever shutoffs may come our way, the utility says. The Courtneys, Gov. Newsom, everyone is to have an emergency kit at the ready.

Register reporter Barry Eberling tried to dig a little deeper. If transmission lines that run through high fire risk areas are the problem, then where are the transmission lines serving Napa? Just how likely is Napa to take a power hit?

After going to various PG&E and state Public Utilities Commission websites, Barry discovered that transmission lines, like the veins in your hands and feet, are everywhere.

Nothing about these maps was reassuring.

Our experience during the Partrick fire of 2017 was not reassuring either. The hills beyond our house glowed red. The Napa Fire Department went down our street, telling everyone to prepare to evacuate if the winds shifted.

Cheryl packed the car with keepsakes and spent hours watering down our yard and roof. We lost our power for a couple of days. This is how I came to grow my “fire beard” which is with me to this day.

Now that I think about it, the shutoff of 2017 was likely a form of preemptory shutoff, like the ones being talked about for 2019. So why am I surprised that my neighborhood could be facing more?

PG&E has won my attention. I’m resigning myself to evenings by flashlight and sandwiches brought in from businesses located in the electrified parts of town. Or maybe we eat peanut butter from a jar.

Cold showers? Not a problem. Just grit your teeth and jump in. If screaming makes jets of cold water more tolerable, then scream.

I wonder if the rest of the U.S. is up to speed on what California is facing this summer, or are their minds clogged with out-of-date images of surfing and Hollywood stars.

We are no longer the land of lotus eaters. When the wind blows hard and the land heats up, we are people who cower in the dark and hope never to be incinerated like Paradise.

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Kevin can be reached at 707-256-2217 or Napa Valley Register, 1615 Soscol Ave., Napa, 94559, or kcourtney@napanews.com.


City Editor

Kevin has been city editor since September 2010. He joined the Register in 1973 as a reporter. He covered Napa City Hall and assorted other beats over the years. Kevin has been writing his Napa Journal column on Sundays since 1989.