The following is a letter-to-the-editor, submitted by Tekla Broz of Covelo, published here as opinion. The opinions expressed in this letter are not those of The Mendocino Voice. If you would like to submit a letter-to-the-editor feel free to write to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more coverage of the blackouts follow this link.
Why Power Shutdowns as Fire Control is a Really Stupid Idea
We just experienced a five-day power shutdown that was originally billed as a two-day shutdown, ostensibly to “protect” us from a windy day fire danger. We are a rural town, in a mountain valley in a remote corner of Mendocino County. It was hardship that was chosen (not by us), was voluntary on the part of the electric utility, and was communicated poorly, sporadically, and unreliably, especially after the actual power, along with every form of communication except unreliable cell phones, was shut down. No, we were not fleeing for our lives, as others in the area were. No, we only experienced inconvenience, not actual privation, but for many, many reasons, this optional power outage was a really stupid idea.
- Thousands of people were left without water. WATER. Yes, we were given a warning, but were originally told it would be two days. Even if you want to store up some water, the amount needed was ridiculous for most people. To flush a toilet, even once a day, requires many gallons. Water for bathing and washing dishes and cooking is many more gallons. It is not a manageable task for many people to store up FIVE days, or even two, of that much water. The lack of flush toilets and washing created a very real health hazard for many people, especially children and elders, who are more vulnerable to disease. And were the sewage treatment plants able to function? [editor's note, the sewage treatment plants did indeed continue to function across the region] No one has said. What happens when the sewers start backing up?
In addition, what if there had been another fire from some OTHER kind of fire? With no water running, we would have had no way whatsoever to defend our homes from even a tiny fire. Also, plants around homes didn’t get watered for five days. In the heat, that meant some of them died, dried up and made even more fuel and fire risk.
- Some people rely on electricity for heat and hot water and cooking. It got freezing cold during that five days, and some houses were unable to heat themselves. Some people were building fires outside to heat themselves, and to cook, and used candles and kerosene for lighting. How smart is that in the middle of a red fire danger day? What other option did some of us have? NONE. Be cold. Shivering children.
- No power puts ALL EMERGENCY SERVICES under extra strain and risk of failure in case of fires or ANY emergency situation, car crash, medical emergency, and limits communications (internet and land line phones down).
- Generators ran everywhere in town, some on LP gas, but most on gasoline. This created MORE greenhouse gas, (oh, the irony), increased the chance of fires starting from generators, created long lines at the gas station and was a sometimes prohibitive cost for a poor community.
- Businesses all over town lost days of being open. The cost there must be in the thousands. My own business lost at least $3,000 in spoiled food and lost trade. This means less tax revenues for the county and the state, and that our poor community is already poorer. Schools were closed, which loses them money each day, interrupts the educations of hundreds of children, and throws year-long schedules into chaos, not to mention affecting working parents who had to find alternative child care.
- Through all of this wound the insidious thread of uncertainty. We can all understand the danger of fire, and see the damage it has wrought on our communities. We can all pitch in and work together to reduce fire danger, to help our neighbors, to ready ourselves and our families for emergencies. But this power outage slammed down upon us with a little warning (be ready for two days, check our suggestions on our website) and then stretched on and on without certainty, with the variable risk of fires near or far increasing, with increased fire risk nearby, with the lawlessness of having little visible law enforcement presence, very limited communications (my family was reduced to listening to a single tiny transistor radio for news updates and information), confusing and erroneous messages from [the Mendocino Sheriff's Office] and PG&E about when and if power might be restored and where the fires and evacuations were, and the high social anxiety created a stressful and non-stop atmosphere of emergency, even when the real emergency was nowhere near us.
All of this was inflicted by a power company that was worried that its infrastructure could not withstand a day of wind. Could we not do this differently? Could we not make our power infrastructure safer, instead of ravaging our communities in this feckless and inept way? Perhaps PG&E is too big. Perhaps it shouldn’t be a profit making company. Perhaps this indescribably important piece of state business utility should be forced to work for the good of the rate payers, rather than for the bottom line of share holders. This was stupid. Let’s not do this again.
If you would like to respond feel free to email email@example.com, however, to avoid being inundated by a very popular topic, we will only take a limited number of letters on this subject.