California wildfire season: PG&E gives warnings and local resource centers but is it enough?

Published on September 11, 2020

2020 has been cruel. COVID-19, sheltering in place, and now wildfire season on the west coast. In California alone, August saw over 600 wildfires throughout the state. On August 17, 2020, a series of 11,000 lightening bolts hit throughout the state resulting in 625 fires covering 1.6 million acres in total.

Signaling an early beginning to an already lengthy fire season, no area was left untouched; The Jones Fire in Nevada County burned only 705 acres but resulted in a week of evacuations and unexpected power outages for miles. More fire retardant was dropped on that single fire than was dropped in the whole of 2019 on fires across the state.

The SCU Lightening Complex fire, southeast of San Francisco, has burned almost 400,000 acres. The LNU Lightening Complex fire in the area of Napa encompassed Lake Berryessa as it burned through 363,220 acres. The CZU August Lightening Complex Fire resulted in ongoing excavations in the area of Santa Cruz.

A single shift of the wind, and the smoke made its way across two states, blocking out the sun and wrapping the skies in an eerie glow of red.

While Mother Nature can help or hurt a fire and subsequent unplanned power outages, people aren’t helping much, as one gender reveal party in San Bernardino resulted in an ongoing wildfire.

Ghosts of Wildfires Passed

Northern California experienced severe wildfires in October of 2017, and 2018 brought the even more deadly Camp Fire which destroyed cities like Paradise and displaced all of its occupants.

While the “Public Safety Power Shut Off” (PSPS) has been standard practice in California for many years, PG&E began to use it throughout the entire state in 2019 as a preventative measure and it seems like 2020 will be no different. Residents have been warned that they may face power shutoffs whenever the weather turns or there is a high fire risk, but that PG&E may not always be able to warn them in time, as was the case with the August 17th lightening fires which prompted immediate power shutoffs without warning for many areas of California.

A series of power blackouts throughout more rural areas of Northern California like Yuba and Nevada Counties were regularly scheduled throughout the summer months resulting in multiple days without power followed by a few days of power, and even more days without power. It quickly became a pattern where residents were unsure when and if their power would be turned back on or for how long.

This culminated on October 9th where a series of power blackouts hit the whole of the San Francisco Bay area and Northern California to reduce the potential wildfires. San Diego Gas & Electric did similar things throughout San Diego County, cutting off power to thousands of households throughout the fire season.

Planned power outage map for October 9, showing the affected areas:

Resources during outages

During the season, PG&E setup customer Resource Centers, in places like the Sierra College for Grass Valley residents. Other sites included golf courses and shopping centers throughout California that became daily centers providing water, air conditioning, restrooms, and phone charging stations for customers.

Preparation during these times with key. One tool provided for residents of California was the PG&E address lookup tool. Using this site, residents can type in their address and get updates on when/if their power will be turned off/back on.

Economic impact

Estimates for the total economic loss during this time reached 2 billion dollars, something that hit independent contractors, freelancers, and small business owners especially hard.

Freelance contractors tend to work with clients from across the United States or around the world, clients who themselves don’t experience the same power outages. And when power is turned off by PG&E to prevent fires, with no firm estimate for when it will be turned back on, doing work is impossible. Not all clients are as understanding as others.

Small business owners, those who run popular community restaurants, work at local grocery stores, or manage the local cafe saw significant losses in income by having to close their doors, watch their food expire, and simply be unable to inform potential patrons as to when things would be up and running again. It becomes very hard for local businesses to schedule things like weekly food orders if continued power shut offs become the norm.

Loss of services

In some cases cell towers were down because of these power outages, and people with AT&T in certain areas of Nevada County were unable to use their phones during a time of crisis. Power outages also meant no internet and no cable.

However, phone, cable and internet providers like Comcast Xfinity or AT&T while willing to in some cases give a refund for the days where the power was out, did not go out of their way to make this known to customers. In fact, they still haven’t.As one local forum noted:

If you have Comcast/Xfinity for Internet, TV, or landline phone (VOIP); you need to call them to get a refund for the time your service was interrupted during the power outages.  Their system tells them that you weren’t getting service, but they will not refund you unless you call.  1-800-COMCAST.

They have no incentive to fix their system unless everyone calls for a refund.  They’re basically getting paid for doing nothing for everyone that doesn’t call.

You are entitled to a refund for the days where PG&E cut off your power if your services were down.

What can I do?

The best thing you can do is to prepare for this loss of service during wildfire season by:

  • Taking note of when PG&E or SDG&E scheduled power outages.
  • Verifying which of your service providers (cell phone, cable, wireless, etc…) are shut off during that time.
  • Keeping track of the days power was off, and the hours.
  • Calling your respective service provider before the end of each billing cycle (in 2019, the power shut offs for many customers spanned three months of billing cycles) and ask for a credit to your account for those days.

Here’s how to contact:

AT&T

Comcast

DISH Network

Cox

T-Mobile

DirecTV

Verizon

What if my phone or internet service provider won’t credit my account?

If you’ve done everything you can and they still won’t credit your account, you have other options. You can solve this dispute through consumer arbitration. At FairShake help you get the compensation you deserve.

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