Disabled People Scramble to Cope When California Kills Power to Prevent Wildfires

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ngd- What could go wrong???

This week, California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a package of 22 laws aimed at fighting wildfires and addressing the utilities that have played a growing role in the state’s wildfire season, one made more severe by climate change. The deadliest fire in modern California history started with malfunctioning electrical equipment that sparked a blaze which ultimately spanned 153,000 acres and killed 85 people, dealing out $16.5 billion in damage.

Despite hazardous conditions in the days before the Camp Fire became a conflagration, Pacific Gas and Electric company elected not to take advantage of one of the most aggressive and effective tools in its wildfire prevention arsenal: De-energization, also known as a public safety power shutoff (PSPS).

According to California’s Public Utilities Commission, in 2015, the last year for which data are available, utility lines accounted for just 8 percent of fires, but they burned 150,000 acres, more than all other causes combined. Many of the state’s lethal fires have been attributed to power equipment. Utilities may opt to de-energize their lines when a lethal combination of weather factors converge: It’s hot, dry, and extremely windy.

While utilities determine when to make the call in different ways, the National Weather Service red flag warning of increased fire risk is often a factor. More than 50 percent of Northern California alone is at “elevated” or “extreme” fire risk, putting hundreds of thousands of residents in the danger zone. California’s Public Utilities Commission is deep in the heart of rulemaking around the relatively new approach to wildfire prevention as the state also explores options like burying utility lines and more aggressive vegetation management for preventing utility-associated wildfires.

But de-energization comes at a cost. When it occurs, customers can be without power for hours or days. Utilities are supposed to provide advance notice, but some customers say that’s not happening. Instead, they complain recent Pacific Gas and Electric and Southern California Edison shutoffs have occurred with insufficient notice and been accompanied with outdated, confusing information on estimated time of power restoration, including lags in translating outage information.

This is a particular concern for customers who are electricity-dependent. In any given outage block, there may be hundreds or thousands of customers who registered with the utility to indicate they rely on medical equipment to stay healthy, and, in some cases, to stay alive.

Known as “medical baseline customers,” they may require ventilators and similar life support equipment, while others have conditions that can become uncomfortable or dangerous without medical equipment and cooling systems, or have medications that must be refrigerated. In recognition of their increased energy needs, utilities provide them with an extra allotment of energy at the base pricing tier. Other customers may have similar electricity needs despite not being enrolled in the medical baseline program, for a variety of reasons.

Utilities are supposed to be proactive about providing early and frequent notice to medical baseline customers to ensure they’re aware of the possibility of an outage.

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