Lights Out in Montecito

By Bob Hazard   |   November 7, 2019

Last week, two million fellow residents of the Golden State were intentionally blacked out by their public utilities without a whimper of protest from our publicly elected officials in Sacramento, Washington, D.C., or Santa Barbara County. Fortunately, Montecito, Carpinteria, and Montecito stayed alit, while residents of Goleta woke up last weekend to smoky air, face masks, and a negative air quality alert. Those with heart and lung conditions, asthma, pregnant women, children, and pets were all advised to limit time outdoors, avoid outdoor exercise, and seal doors and windows.

The Coming Calamity

Montecito got the message. We dodged the triple-bullet threat of extended power outages, involuntary blackouts, and National Weather Services “extreme red-flag evacuation warnings.” At the same time, we received a dark look at an uncertain future. What happens when thousands of our friends and neighbors try to evacuate a Montecito wildfire conflagration on our only two escape routes – the currently clogged 101 or the bridgeless East Valley Road (state Route 192)? Will we be further endangered by downed power lines and exploding transformers that unleash a torrent of flying embers, leaving a line of stalled vehicles with drivers running for their lives?

Last Weekend’s Warning Shot

Closest to Montecito was the Maria Fire near Santa Paula, the “Citrus Capital of the World” in Ventura County which burned 8,730 acres, caused 8,000 evacuations and attracted 5,000 firefighters to save the avocados, Valencia oranges, and lemon crops. Southern California Edison (SCE) reported that it re-energized a 16,000-volt power line last week, 13 minutes before the Maria Fire ignited.

Further south, the Easy Fire in Simi Valley burned 1,860 acres and threatened the Reagan Presidential Library. Officials quickly lifted all mandatory evacuation orders affecting some 26,000 residents. TheGetty Fire, near the famed Getty Museum burned 745 acres, 12 homes and closed the 405. Investigators determined that the cause of the fire was an “accidental start” from a tree branch that broke off and landed on a power line, according to the LA Fire Department.

The massive Kinkade Fire and its surrounding blackouts turned the toggle switch in northern California from “normal” to “chaos.” The fire burned for 12 days, consuming 78,758 acres and destroying 374 structures. PG&E disclosed that one of its transmission lines may have sparked the fire. It shut off power to some two million residents. Officials took the extraordinary precaution of evacuating 200,000 people, some as far away as Bodega Bay on the coast, 20 miles from the fire.

Those evacuated and those left without power were forced to find alternative food and lodgings. Residents threatened by the Kinkade Fire had already been devastated by the Tubbs Fire in October 2017, which was at that time the most destructive wildfire in California history, burning 36,807 acres in Napa, Sonoma, and Lake Counties, destroying 5,5643 structures, causing 22 deaths, while eradicating the City of Santa Rosa in Sonoma County. 

Community Outcomes from a Planned Power Shutoff

Mass migrations to nearby local hotels away from the flames work in a fire evacuation. They do not work when whole communities are blacked out by a loss of power for an extended period of time. There is nowhere local left to go.

In a power outage of a long duration, food may last only four hours in a closed refrigerator; frozen food could last a day or two. Insulin needs to be refrigerated. Without power, telephone landlines don’t work. Traffic lights go out. Gasoline stations need electricity to run the pumps and provide diesel fuel for generators. Garage doors don’t open. Electric cars stop working and so do electric wheelchairs. Pets become a liability. Schools close.

When the power goes out so does the Internet and wireless services. Some cell sites shut down. Communication stops. No e-mail; no television; no notifications; no ability to summon help. Everybody is in the dark. When will power be restored? Who knows?

Restaurants and businesses close. Walk-in fridges shut down. Without working credit card registers and employees, businesses can’t operate. Losses mount. Rents remain unpaid. Health services like Sansum Clinic, with emergency power generators that depend on batteries, are forced to close when their batteries are exhausted, leaving an entire population without access to quality medical care. 

Not the Worst Fire Season

The wildfire season in California makes headlines every year, but it is nothing unnatural and nothing new. So far this year, wildfires have exacted a much lower toll than in recent years. The firestorms of last week did not result in any fatalities. Losses were much lower than in the past two years when thousands of homes were destroyed, and dozens of Californians were killed. The fire season is far from over, but the new news is Sacramento’s new tolerance for blackouts.

The favorite whipping boy this year is the bankrupt PG&E, not so much for its downed power lines and exploding transformers, as for its new authority to shut off power to millions of customers, rather than incur additional fire related liability claims.

The task of a monopoly public utility is to deliver electric power safely and reliably. SCE and PG&E do neither.

Both offer outdated, downed or malfunctioning power lines, and their solution is to turn off power to millions of customers to avoid added liabilities? PG&E is already in bankruptcy; SCE is one more fire away. Their politically forced embrace of sun and wind to power electric grids has led to predictable failures as funding is diverted from maintenance of power lines, actively trimming trees and prudently undergrounding power lines in response to global warming.

Do Blackouts Make Us Safer?

Intentional blackouts, new this year, have been described by our Governor as “public safety shut-offs” that must be tolerated because they prevent utility lines from sparking devastating wildfires that burn communities and kill residents. But is this realistic? Is the power shutoff a protective device to lower legal liabilities for the utilities or to make us safer? Was PG&E’s bankruptcy created by state rules and regulations mandating how they must conduct their business? Will the State of California be forced to take over our mismanaged utilities, making them even more political, while raising electrical rates which are already the highest in the nation?

Do ordained blackouts reduce fire danger? So far results are not conclusive. What is conclusive is that power blackouts help shield poorly managed public utilities from increased legal liability. 1st District County Supervisor Das Williams puts it this way: “I suspect, but can’t prove it, that more residents have perished from blackouts than fires this year. What are my colleagues doing up in Sacramento?”

California’s bizarre response of shutting off power to prevent wildfires has become a national joke for even editorial writers in the eastern press. Is there any merit to the pundit’s dismay at seeing California sink to the level of a 3rd world country, while its political leaders accept the status quo and rush to blame the utilities or the weather, or both?

Governor Gavin Newsom’s weak response has been to call on utility companies to give residential customers who lost their power $100 rebates. California Public Utilities Commission President Marybel Batjer laid an even bigger egg with this bromide: “PG&E must try to restore power within 12 hours in the future, reduce the size of outages and develop a ‘communications structure’ with counties and tribal governments so they can respond to emergencies.” Edison spokesman Robert Villegas responded with an even worse non-answer: “We try to keep the customer informed always, but we may not be able to, depending upon circumstances.” Is this the best we can expect from our so-called leaders?

If the California Public Utilities Commission could show us that tuning the state into a third world country successfully prevented power lines from starting deadly wildfires it may be worth the pain. So far, the evidence is not conclusive that dark days are making us all safer.


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