PG&E shut off power to 11,000 customers in the Oakland hills during high winds at the height of fire season in 2020. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

Why do power outages occur more often during fire season?

Following several high wind events on hot days that sparked fire from electrical equipment, Pacific Gas & Electric began in 2018 what it calls “Public Safety Power Shutoff” (PSPS) events or planned power outages. The idea is to turn off live wires preemptively during fire conditions. 

PG&E is largely replacing this program with what it calls Enhanced Powerline Safety Settings (EPSS), where highly sensitive sensors on equipment immediately cut power (within one-tenth of a second) when triggered by weight or movement like a branch or tree hitting a line.

Launched in 2022, the system is in place in all of PG&E’s high fire risk areas, and, according to the utility, has already significantly reduced ignitions and curbed fires. It’s activated during strong fire conditions, in high-risk areas. 

Public safety power outages where customers usually get several hours or even days of advance notice are still a possibility, the utility said, mainly during extreme weather, such as periods of heavy winds.

Both types of outages can affect thousands of customers, depending on the risk areas and power line grids.

How can I find out if there is a power outage scheduled for my area?

PG&E’s online “outage center”  lets you check for planned or sudden outages by entering an address. It also has information on the utility’s different types of outages, and resources for dealing with power blackouts.

Because the enhanced power line safety system cuts power almost instantaneously, advance warning isn’t possible. 

PG&E says it will try to inform customers about the likely length of outages, and when power will be restored. 

In most public safety outages, customers will also get advance notifications via text, push messages, or email.  Local emergency alert systems such as Nixle or AC Alert also usually provide power outage notifications and updates.

Make sure your PG&E account contact information is updated, to help with these notifications. 

This is especially critical for people who rely on electricity-powered medical devices

Anyone living in a high-fire risk or nearby area, including in the East Bay Hills, should be aware of the possibility of sudden outages during fire conditions. 

Preparing is similar to preparing for any potential loss of power.

How do I prepare for a power shut-off?

Here are several ways you can be prepared for any kind of power outage in your area.

  • Update your contact information with PG&E
  • Make sure you’ll have plenty of sources of light for nighttime that aren’t candles. Solar-powered camping lanterns can help reduce the dependency on batteries.
  • Keep flashlights in known places, checking now and then to make sure the batteries have juice. Keep a supply of extra batteries with or near the flashlights. 
  • Use candles only with extreme caution because of the fire risk
  • Keep a charged cell phone handy
  • Hard-wired single-line landline phones will work when the power goes off, but cordless landlines won’t. If you only have a cordless landline, try to get an alternative type of phone
  • Keep a battery-operated AM-FM radio with spare batteries
  • Buy a large cooler to store food when the power goes out and stock up on nonperishable food items. Put bottles of water in the freezer to use to keep perishable food cold
  • Keep a list of important phone numbers handy, including hospital, police, fire, friends and family. Put it on the refrigerator or a household bulletin board.
  • If you or someone you love needs power to run life-saving medical equipment, you may consider buying a portable gas-powered generator which can range from $400 to $2,500, according to Consumer Reports. Rechargeable power stations can also help charge personal electronics. 
  • Make sure your generator is installed correctly and that you know how to use it. Generators that aren’t used or installed correctly can be hazardous for you, PG&E workers, and utility equipment.
  • If you use life support equipment, plan in advance for backup, or consider staying with friends or family who don’t live in an outage area.
  • Turn off major appliances such as washers/dryers and air conditioners to prevent them from coming back on suddenly when power is restored.
  • Turn off heat-producing appliances such as stoves, ovens, and irons before an outage to prevent fire risk when they come back on.
  • Keep your food colder longer by opening the refrigerator and freezer doors as infrequently as you can. Putting a plastic container of ice in your fridge when it’s off helps food stay cold.
  • To avoid opening and closing the fridge and freezer, try to eat dry and canned food during an outage, or takeout from outside the outage area.
  • Keep your computers and TV plugged into a surge suppressor, which helps protect them when power goes off and on.
  • If you have an automatic garage door, make sure it works manually when power is out, or park outside.
  • Remember to reset clocks, thermostats, alarm systems and other electronic equipment when your power comes back on.
  • Consider getting a battery-operated weather radio, with a supply of spare batteries. Weather radios can emit warning alerts and public information.

If you or someone you know might be especially affected by power cutoffs due to disability, frailty, or medical conditions and need extra help,  check PGE’s resource page for people with access and functional needs, a term used for those with physical, developmental, or intellectual disabilities.

My power just went out. What should I do?

The first thing you should do if your power is out is to make sure everyone in your household is safe and has a flashlight within reach. 

Check in with friends and loved ones nearby to see if someone needs help. 

Keep freezers and refrigerators closed. A fridge will keep food cold for about four hours while a full freezer will remain cold for about two days. It’s best to eat the most perishable food first (and, yes, it’s all right if it’s the ice cream in the freezer) and put the rest in a cooler with ice. Throw out any food that reaches 40 degrees or higher. 

You should also throw out any refrigerated medication if the power is out for more than a day, unless the drug’s label says otherwise. 

Don’t use any gas-burning devices, like a camping stove or generator, indoors as it could lead to possible carbon monoxide poisoning. 

The American Red Cross recommends unplugging appliances and electronics to avoid power overloads or damage from power surges. It also recommends you evacuate your home if it becomes too hot or cold, or if you have medical devices that need power. Communities often provide warming or cooling centers and power charging stations.

PG&E tries to keep customers notified of a power outage status, with estimates of when it might end. These notifications are via text, push notifications, or email, in case your computer still has charge. Keep your PG&E account contact information updated to make sure you receive notifications.