Only 6,000 Napa County residents live in “very high” fire hazard severity zones, but far more people within the county’s borders are at risk of a planned power shutdown this summer and fall.
That was the word from Napa County Supervisor Diane Dillon at a community Emergency Preparedness meeting in St. Helena last month. “PG&E is actively engaged and planning for Public Safety Power Shutdowns. This year, they are expecting this will occur four to five times between July and November when there is a high wind warning,” she said.
“The high wind warning might be at the top of Mount St. Helena and we might all say, ‘Hey, it doesn’t seem windy down here,’ but if it’s windy on the top of Mount St. Helena or it’s windy in the western foothills and that’s the way the line of electricity comes to service St. Helena, we’ll be affected, because they’re going to have to shut that line down,” she said.
And, the power won’t be turned back on when the wind dies down, because PG&E has to go out and check all the lines, she added, “so that’s another 24 to 48 hours before they can restore power.”
PG&E spokesperson Deanna Contreras confirmed Friday that the utility, which has been held responsible for devastating wildfires over the past two years, expects more precautionary shutdowns affecting more people than last year. The program will now include approximately 25,200 miles of electrical lines, up from about 7,100 last year, she said.
“All PG&E electric customers should be prepared for a possible public safety outage in the event extreme fire danger conditions threaten a portion of the electric grid,” Contreras said. “While customers in high fire-threat areas are more likely to be affected, any customer could have their power shut off because the energy system relies on power lines working together to provide electricity across cities, counties and regions.
Contreras said the specific area and number of affected customers will depend on forecasted weather conditions and which circuits PG&E needs to turn off for public safety. A copy of the CPUC High Fire-Threat District map showing which areas in Napa County are at higher risk for wildfire can be found at cpuc.ca.gov/FireThreatMaps.
The most likely lines to be considered for shutoff will be those that pass through areas designated Tier 2 (elevated risk) or Tier 3 (extreme risk), Contreras said.
PG&E will try to send customers alerts at 48 hours, 24 hours and just prior to shutting off power. This will be done through automated calls, texts and emails, Contreras said.
Calistoga residents and businesses experienced a mandatory turnoff in October 2018 during a high-wind situation that PG&E said threatened transmission lines feeding power to the town. The shutoff prompted complaints about lack of notice and economic losses to businesses left in the dark.
Living in a new normal
“We all know we live in a new normal,” Dillon said. “In Napa County, it has been a new normal for about five years,” she said, listing the events from August 2014 to March 2018:
- The August 2014 earthquake, although it didn’t much affect the Upvalley, it “certainly affected us at the county, we just opened the courthouse two months ago” that was damaged in the earthquake. “It can take a long time to do recovery,” Dillon added.
- In 2015, the county had “what was then the second largest evacuation in the state, having 1,000 people from Lake County come from those wildland fires to our fairgrounds.” She said the county learned a lot about its emergency response following the September wildland fires.
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- In January 2017, Napa County had major slides, which is when Silverado Trail came “crashing down” at Pratt Avenue. “We have roads that are still one lanes in the western part of the county and a temporary bridge that still needs to be replaced,” she said.
- Ten months later, in October, several wildfires erupted in Napa and Sonoma counties;
- In March 2018, Dillon recounted, “We had an active shooter and hostage taking situation in Yountville, which greatly affected that community.”
“We do emergency response pretty well in Napa County, because of our experience,” Dillon said. “What we want to emphasize today is how all of us, who are not the folks in the uniforms who help us after the emergency occurs, can minimize their efforts. There are only one responder for every 100 of us, so the better prepared we are when one of these events occurs, the better we’ll all be.”
Nixle and IPAS
Jennifer Palmer, who runs the county’s Emergency Operations Center, said county residents could rely on two alert systems: Nixle, which people can sign up for free by going to Nixle.com and clicking “sign up now,” and IPAS (Integrated Public Alert System), which she calls a significant improvement over Nixle.
IPAS is run through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which will send a message to every single cell phone within a certain geographic area, whether you’re registered or not. “If you are here during a time of extreme emergency and we activate the IPAS system, you will receive an alert on your phone,” Palmer said.
“We encourage everybody to register for Nixle, but also know there is an added notification system through IPAS,” Palmer said.
Following the October 2017 wildland fires, the county sheriff’s department has also developed “evacuation tags,” that can be placed on the front of your house, or your mailbox when you leave, so that emergency personnel are not wasting their time notifying a person who has already left the area.
Sgt. Chet Schneider said during the wildland fires, “we were duplicating services as far as double checking or triple checking some residences, because we hadn’t confirmed they had been evacuated.” He added the sheriff’s department will be handing out the evacuation tags, which can be rolled up and placed with your emergency preparedness bag.
Sheriff’s deputy Matt Macomber said they learned something else after the wildland fires: all emergency sirens sound alike. So, they developed a high-low siren that’s only used by the Napa County Sheriff’s Department that tells people there’s an evacuation coming. In the event of an emergency or natural disaster, “when we don’t have time to go door-to-door, we’ll drive through the neighborhood with the siren going,” he said.
Dillon encouraged county residents to visit PG&E.com for wildfire safety tips and sign up for power shutoff notices.
The original version of this story publicized a PG&E community meeting in late May. That meeting has been canceled and will be reschedule, the utility said.