The real world in Humboldt County during 28 hours of Public Safety Power Shutoff

This article from the North Coast Journal details what went right and wrong during a PSPS blackout on Oct. 8-9. It’s a wake-up call that Gorge communities should learn from.

It was 5:22 a.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 8, when Dorie Lanni’s cell phone rang. It had already been a hectic 36 hours for Lanni, the county’s emergency services manager tasked with running the three-person office that coordinates major emergency responses in Humboldt County. 

The prior Sunday, she’d joined a 6 p.m. conference call hastily assembled by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. On the line were Office of Emergency Services (OES) managers from 39 counties, as well as a host of other officials, when PG&E announced it was going to be initiating the first of its long predicted Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS). The company didn’t have details but was providing first notice that it was monitoring wind and humidity patterns and expected elevated fire conditions in the coming days that would force it to shut down portions of its electrical grid, potentially cutting power to customers in some or all of the 39 counties. Everyone on the line was asked to call in the following morning for a follow-up conference at which PG&E would have more information. 

“At that point, I wasn’t really concerned,” Lanni says a week later, sitting in the county’s Emergency Operations Center, a bunker-like room in the basement of the county courthouse that, save for some computer equipment and a large television monitor, looks like it hasn’t changed in 50 years. 

Lanni, too, had been monitoring local fire conditions — she says it comes with the job — and knew they weren’t expected to be elevated throughout much of the county. At most, she figured, residents along some blustery ridgelines or in the drier reaches of the eastern part of the county may be impacted. Nonetheless, she pushed out an email to 400 partner agencies — first responders, hospitals, municipalities and others — to alert them. 

At 8:30 a.m. Monday, Lanni joined the PG&E call and was mildly relieved to get the news she expected. 

“I was told Humboldt County is no longer included. They said, ‘You will not be impacted,'” Lanni says, adding that it was a message repeated throughout the day until the last PG&E conference call Monday night. 

Then came the call Tuesday morning from a PG&E employee. 

“He said, ‘I was told to call you and tell you you’re back in the scope. Be on a call at 7:30,” Lanni says. 

The 7:30 a.m. call was somewhat chaotic, Lanni says, but wrapped with PG&E listing the numbers of customers it expected could be impacted in each county. When it came to Humboldt, a company representative said 60,000 customers could potentially be left without power as of midnight, with the outage potentially lasting through the weekend. Lanni was floored. 

“We have been talking with PG&E for at least two years, at no point did they ever suggest in any way that we might lose power to the entire county,” Lanni says, adding that each and every conversation had been about localized shutoffs in response to localized fire conditions. 

After the call wrapped, Lanni scrambled to follow up with PG&E employees and eventually learned that because the two transmission lines that run along state routes 299 and 36 bringing PG&E’s electricity into Humboldt County originate in Shasta County, which was slated to be shutdown due to forecasts of high fire risk, there would be no way to get electricity into Humboldt. This was the first time Lanni and other Humboldt County officials learned of this reality, she says. 

“We have no idea if that’s because they didn’t know or they just decided not to share that information with our first responders,” she says, adding that over the course of two years she had repeatedly requested access to maps detailing how PG&E’s power grid in Humboldt County operates, only to be told that would present a security risk.

Read more here.