Facts at a Glance

Since its inception as a community response to the 1991 firestorm, the North Hills Phoenix Association worked to provide opportunities for residents of the North Oakland hills area to learn from one another and to work for the common good.  Substantial improvements have been made in the Oakland Fire Department’s vegetation management plan and its capacity to respond to wildfire incidents, including planning and collaborating with other jurisdictions. 

Over the last decade, operating as the North Hills Community Association (NHCA), we have adopted a broader mandate to serve the more than 3000 households in the area bounded by Claremont Avenue, Ashby/Tunnel/Highway 13, Thornhill, and Grizzly Peak, “to develop and sustain a community that is safe, beautiful, and a welcoming place in which to live.”

PG&E’s announcement of the Public Safety Shut-off Program (“Shutdown”), a preventive measure for avoiding power-line caused or enhanced wild fires in the Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone (called “Tier 3 by PG&E), has generated a flood of questions and concerns.  This was originally written in the Fall of 2018 when the shutdowns had not occurred; it’s been updated in the Fall of 2019 now that many of us have had experience with one or two shutdowns. (Please send corrections to stage@berkeley.edu.)

A good summary of lessons learned is here:


When will electrical Shutdowns occur?

A Shutdown will occur when PG&E’s command center determines that conditions are extreme and will be the choice of last resort to avoid power lines igniting a fire.  They are more stringent than those used by CalFire when they declare a Red Flag Day.

How often can we anticipate Shutdowns?

PG&E estimates having to turn off a section of their grid one to two times per year throughout their entire service area (most of Northern California), fewer than the number of Red Flag Days.  The Shutdown procedure will take into account variations in the weather conditions, particularly high winds, within the service area.  The Shutdown can and will take place at the level of the circuit.  There are more than one hundred circuits in PG&E’s Northern California service area, some serving only a few households and others serving thousands.

What criteria will PG&E use when deciding to shut off a circuit for fire safety?

  •  “Extreme” fire danger threat level as classified by the National Fire Danger Rating System,
  •  A Red Flag Warning declared by the National Weather Service,
  •  Low humidity levels, generally 20% or below,
  •  Sustained winds above ~25 mph and wind gusts of ~45mph
  •  Site-specific conditions such as temperature, terrain, and local climate,
  •  Critically dry vegetation that could serve as fuel for a wildfire, and
  •  On-the-ground, real-time observations from PG&E crews.

This includes above-ground circuits, depending on the weather conditions in their coverage area, independent of the presence or absence of undergrounded lines or solar feeds on the circuit.

How long does PG&E anticipate a Shutdown will last?

Because of the need for equipment inspections (and repair if necessary) after the “all clear” signal is given, PG&E estimates that a Shutdown should last a maximum of five days, clearly depending, in part, on the number of circuits involved.  (Some neighbors have promulgated an estimate of seven days; this is inconsistent with PG&E’s estimates.  All statements in this document will be revised when new information is provided and authenticated.)

How is PG&E communicating its Public Safety Shut-Off Program to the public?

PG&E has contacted customers individually by email and postal mail (both letters and postcards), via their website (pge.com) and television ads, and by attending or holding community meetings.  The messages have emphasized what customers need to do to prepare for potential Shutdowns, but have been less forthcoming about the steps that PG&E is taking to minimize the disruption for customers.  A summary of the steps that customers should take is provided at https://www.pge.com/en_US/safety/emergency-preparedmess/natural-disaster/wildfires/community-wildfire-safety.page

How will I be alerted to a potential Shutdown?

Customers can and should log in at pge.com/mywildfirealerts to sign up for alerts from PG&E regarding Shutdowns and other service interruptions.  While not immediately evident, it is possible to select multiple landlines, cell phones for calls and/or text messages, and email addresses.  We recommend selecting more than one method so you can be assured of receiving the message in a timely fashion.  PG&E hopes to inform customers as far as 48 hours in advance, if possible, then again in 24 hours, and again shortly before the Shutdown.  Most recent news releases are posted at www.pgecurrents.com

On Saturday, October 13, 2018, Alameda County’s alert system, AC Alerts, told its subscribers that PG&E was monitoring the weather conditions and considering a possible Shutdown starting as early as overnight Saturday into Sunday morning, more likely on Sunday evening, the 14th.  On Saturday, PG&E started direct notification to ~100,000 customers of the possibility (none in Alameda County) and shut down the power to ~60,000 customers on Sunday.  After inspecting the damage and repairing as necessary, power was returned to two thirds of the customers on Monday, the 15th, and most of the remainder on Tuesday, the 16th.

Communication during October 2019 was, by PG&E’s own admission, not as good as it should have been, particularly for the first event, October 9th and 10th; its alerts were not received in a timely fashion and its website crashed under the load.  Its Twitter feed (pge4me) was its most dependable source of information though its maps where not detailed enough to provide customer-specific information.  When it outsourced its address look-up function to an outside vendor, that provided accurate information.  Having set such a low bar, they did a better job in the second round of shutoffs, but the reporting from the San Francisco Chronicle and the Mercury News was a lifeline for people trying to find out what was going on.  The Chron’s maps and those of the East Bay Municipal Utility District were much better than PG&E’s, even though they were using the same information.  

In the time leading up to a possible shutdown (e.g., when the National Weather Service issues a red flag warning or an extreme red flag warning), https://www.pge.com/en_US/safety/emergency-preparedness/natural-disaster/wildfires/psps-weather-map.page is useful because it shows by area the predicted weather and chances of shutdowns for a week.

Will the Shutdown affect cell phone towers?

Cell phone towers have batteries that will power them for several hours, but not for several days.

In October 2019, the backup systems were put to the test.  Emergency generators were deployed by some providers, but there were challenges in keeping them refueled.  Basically, they were not prepared for the duration of the outage; the importance of improving this service is widely acknowledged, as summarized here: https://www.sfchronicle.com/california-wildfires/article/Without-cell-service-Bay-Area-fears-emergency-14572616.php

Will my landline still operate during a Shutdown?

Most home phones that are directly fed by the phone cables will work, but portable phones depend on electricity and won’t work.

Will I be able to use Wi-Fi for internet and VOIP?Devices that have LTE will still work as long as they are charged.  PG&E advises customers to consider redundant communications systems, including battery and generator back-ups (see section below) to ensure that PG&E and other safety and personal communications can be received for an extended period of time.

Will my “walkie talkie” handheld device work during the Shutdown?

“Walkie talkies” that families use for skiing, emergency communication, etc., may be ineffective in our topography.  If a family’s emergency plan includes these devices, they should try a practice run in their neighborhood to find the best locations for emergency preparedness.

What about radios for communication?

This is a complicated topic.  If people are interested in learning more about radios, the NHCA Public Safety Committee is willing to hold a workshop on this issue.  Please send an email to psc@northhillscommunity.org to express interest or volunteer your expertise.

What if someone in my family depends on electrically-powered medical equipment or requires refrigerated medication?

Many households have one or more residents dependent on life-saving, electrically-powered medical equipment and/or medication that has to be kept at a particular temperature for effectiveness.  They’re usually prepared with back-up generators for ordinary power outages of five or fewer hours.  Clearly they need more fuel for five days, so planning an adequate fuel supply is essential.

How will hospitals and nursing homes support patients onlifesaving equipment or cooled medications during a Shutoff? 

PG&E has contacted local medical facilities that have many patients who are dependent on lifesaving equipment or cooled drugs to make sure that back-up power supplies will be adequate for longer outages.

If my home’s power lines are undergrounded, will I be impacted by a Shutdown?

It could be, depending on whether there are above-ground lines on your circuit.  Many, but not all, of the residents in the NHCA area were offered the opportunity to tax themselves to get their wires undergrounded after the 1991 firestorm; they are still paying that assessment that augmented funds from PG&E and the City.  Although the 1991 firestorm wasn’t caused by electrical wires, it was a prudent (and, given the Wine Country fires, some might say, “prescient,”) step to take to reduce the likelihood of fire in the future.  The undergrounding was not comprehensive, however; there are streets like Broadway Terrace that were undergrounded, but not its feeder streets, and the circuits were not necessarily undergrounded.  Thus, it would be necessary to do a comprehensive undergrounding project for the whole Tier 3 area, all streets and all circuits supplying electricity to those streets (some of which might be distant).

At present, the waiting list for undergrounding projects in Oakland is decades long (Piedmont Pines waited 30 years and has only recently completed the first of three phases).  The costs are prohibitive so it’s unlikely to happen in the next several years.  A new funding model for undergrounding would need to be devised, probably by the California Public Utilities Commission, as a collaborative of homeowners, PG&E, and likely the state.

Can I depend on my solar panels for electricity during a Shutdown?

In most, but not all, cases, the mechanism that is used to transfer the electricity to the grid is the same as the mechanism used from the grid to the house.  Therefore, when the circuit is shut off, so is the solar feed.  Some solar-equipped homes store their electricity in batteries and those are the only situations where the solar energy can be used.

Will we still have access to water?

Most homes in our area have water pumped uphill for distribution; the pumping stations will lose their electricity in the Shutdown and will need alternative sources of power.  EMBUD tops off their tanks in anticipation of a fire, but the quantity of water will not be sufficient for five days, even if there isn’t a concurrent fire to put out.  Lack of water was one of the several challenges for firefighters in 1991 and residents are concerned about a repeat of that scenario.  PG&E has been meeting with EBMUD to inform their planning so that they can deploy portable generators to the areas in greatest need during a fire.  It would, however, be good practice to have not only flashlights, portable chargers, and coolers at the ready, but also stored water to tide you over during the outage.

In the last year, EBMUD has attained status as a critical partner with PG&E so it has a new level of information.  A complete description of their program is here:  https://www.ebmud.com/about-us/public-safety-power-shutoff-psps/  The bottom line is that they expect to be able to continue to provide water in the high risk fire areas without interruption.  They will ask us to limit our water consumption so that they can keep the pipes full and the pressure adequate, also so that they can last throughout the shutdown, so we are asked to have two gallons per person per day (and don’t forget about pets).

Plan for Shutdowns and use the experience to practice

Our response to Shutdowns can and should be to add them to our potential emergencies, along with earthquakes, landslides, fires, explosions, etc.  The City’s CORE program gives tips on how to prepare for a wide range of emergencies and what to include in your emergency kit.  https://www.oaklandca.gov/resources/emergency-preparedness-handling-hazards-2  CORE also offers educational workshops to Oakland residents, Oakland Community Preparedness and Response  Program.

The CORE program currently has some vacancies and is inactive right now.  The Oakland Firesafe Council has a new program that is providing a similar approach to community organizing Oakland Community Preparedness and Response  Program; for more information see https://oaklandfiresafecouncil.org/oakland-cpr/

Use the infrequent PG&E Shutdowns to fine-tune your emergency plan so that you are better prepared for a natural disaster that causes a shutdown, such as a major earthquake.

We need to look at the role of residents; local, state, and federal agencies; utilities; and community organizations in emergency preparedness.  And we need to work on evacuation planning, including parking and egress routes, for all emergencies.

Posted in Emergency Preparedness, Public Safety.