The only things he prepared for the power shutoff were ice and an emergency glow stick.

“Within a few hours people kind of started to realize that’s kind of a big deal. Our food’s gonna go bad, we’re not gonna be able to do anything,” Sonoma State sophomore Bijan Soltani said. “Panic sort of started to happen.”

Soltani was one of 800,000 people affected by PG&E’s public safety power shutoff (PSPS) Oct. 9. 

Although this shutoff was not the first of its kind, it was the most widespread at the time, turning off power to 34 counties across California. All power was restored within three days, according to PG&E.

Since then, power was shut off to 36 counties starting Saturday, Oct. 26. More than 950,000 customers are without power as of Sunday, Oct. 27, according to PG&E. 

Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an emergency proclamation in Sonoma County and Los Angeles County Friday, Oct. 25. The PG&E shutoff began just after the Kincade fire broke out in Sonoma County. The blaze reached more than 30,000 acres as of Oct. 27, according to Cal Fire. 

The cause of the Kincade fire is still under investigation. There was broken electrical equipment near where the fire began, according to a PG&E electrical incident report. Soltani said during this shutoff, as a result of the fire, Sonoma State has been evacuated.

San Luis Obispo County has not been affected by a shutoff this season, but Cal Poly’s Department of Emergency Management and San Luis Obispo County Emergency Services recommend preparing for a shutoff now.

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What is a public safety power shutoff?

Why are they happening?

If a shutoff happens at Cal Poly

Food on campus

Prioritizing health

How to prepare

What is a public safety power shutoff?

“This isn’t your standard power outage where a couple buildings go down,” Cal Poly Director of Emergency Management Anthony Knight said. “This is where an entire region goes down and the support structure we all rely on is potentially impacted.”

When enacted, a PSPS de-energizes power lines in areas considered to be at a high risk of fire, in addition to any transmission lines that may feed the power lines in the affected region. 

This means the electricity that usually powers necessities, including traffic signals, refrigeration, gasoline pumps and charging outlets will not be accessible during a shutoff. These basics will only be accessible with a backup generator, which has limited energy capabilities. 

High risk fire conditions include low humidity levels, dry vegetation and high winds — all factors in the recent PSPS. 

However, a shutoff can happen in San Luis Obispo County even if the weather locally is mild or rainy. 

High-risk fire conditions in the Central Valley could lead to a shutoff in San Luis Obispo because the two PG&E transmission lines that power the county connect to lines hundreds of miles away, according to San Luis Obispo County Office of Emergency Management Coordinator Anita Konopa. 

A PSPS is expected to last at least 48 hours, but it can go on for as long as there is a high fire risk, according to PG&E.

Once the risk is gone, restoring power could take a few additional days. PG&E workers will have to manually inspect every de-energized power line to ensure safety when turning power back on, according to Knight.

“It’s not a switch we can flip and say, ‘Power’s back on everybody — resume normal operations,’” Knight said. 

Why are they happening?

According to a 2019 Cal Fire report, the October 2017 Tubbs Fire was started by electrical equipment near a residence — similar to power equipment used by PG&E. 

There were 17 other major fires in Northern California during that same month. Out of the 18 fires in October, 17 were attributed directly to PG&E power equipment by Cal Fire, according to Gov. Gavin Newsom during a 2017 news conference.

PG&E implemented the PSPS program after the 2017 fires, according to Knight. 

Nearly one year later, the Camp Fire killed 85 people and destroyed 19,000 homes, according to the New York Times. Cal Fire determined the fire was started by failed PG&E transmission lines. PG&E expanded the shutoff program this year to include all transmission lines that feed into a zone with high fire risk. 

The expanded plan means more people are affected by the shutoffs. 

“I feel like nobody was gonna be happy with [PG&E’s] decision,” Soltani said. “If they did leave power on and there was a fire, they would’ve been screwed. But they cut power and everyone was pissed.”

However, not everyone felt the same. Sonoma resident Erin George lost her home in the 2017 Tubbs Fire and said it was jarring that she was warned about the power shutoff on the two year anniversary of the fire.

“There were lines wrapped around blocks to get gas, people were yelling at each other,” George said. “There was anxiety from the community that was affected, and there was a lot of fear in that moment.”

Jill and Arthur Dawson’s house burned down in October 2017, and this year they rebuilt a new home on the same lot. All that remained on the lot after the fire was an elderberry tree, which bloomed with fresh berries again this year. “It’s kind of like a new birth,” Arthur said. Emily Merten | Mustang News

If a shutoff happens at cal poly

Although San Luis Obispo was not included in the ongoing shutoff, high heat and winds placed the county at an elevated fire risk

PG&E officials said they will try to give at least a 48 hour notice before a PSPS, but there is no guarantee. Knight said the Cal Poly Department of Emergency Management will notify the campus community as soon as they know of a shutoff through PolyAlerts, social media notifications and campus-wide emails. 

The Department of Emergency Management worked with 100 different groups on campus to create a plan focusing on maintaining public safety in the event of an outage. However, University Spokesperson Matt Lazier said he could not provide Mustang News with the plan because it is an “internal working document that is not intended to be shared publicly.”

Knight said it is very likely that class will be canceled starting the second day of a PSPS. Some classes may still be scheduled during the first day depending on when the shutoff occurs.

Lazier wrote in an email to Mustang News that upon notification of a PSPS, Cal Poly would broadcast the location of a community resource center. This center will have resources including information, cooling and limited charging capabilities. 

The resource center will be powered by backup generators. There are approximately 40 generators distributed throughout campus, according to Lazier. 

In comparison, San Luis Obispo County owns an estimated total of 30 generators, according to Konopa. Although backup generators have limited energy capabilities, Konopa said one generator can usually power “a couple” outlets in a building or a lift station, such as one for water use.

According to Lazier, Cal Poly will prioritize the campus community’s health and safety, including property, livestock and campus infrastructure.

PG&E has identified three tiers of fire threat in California counties. Tier 1 is minimal fire threat, tier 2 is elevated fire threat and tier 3 is extreme fire threat. San Luis Obispo county is tier 2, but its two transmission lines pass through tier 3 areas. Ashley Ladin | Mustang News

food on campus

Campus Dining has multiple diesel generators to keep their main facilities powered and keep food refrigerated, according to Cal Poly Corporation Communications Specialist Aaron Lambert. Knight said Cal Poly is prepared for a power outage for up to 72 hours. Campus dining has a three-day meal plan for all on-campus residents, including options for people with dietary needs.

The university did not say they will have enough food prepared for off-campus students. 

Poly Deli, 805 Kitchen and The Avenue will remain open during a power shutoff. They would serve a modified menu and have assigned meal times in three-hour increments, Lambert wrote in an email to Mustang News. 

All other Campus Dining venues will be closed. 

Student will still need to pay with their PolyCard to get their meals. However, if electronic payment systems fail, Lambert said students will not be turned away.

Source: University Spokesperson Matt Lazier; Department of Emergency Management Director Anthony Knight | Graphic: Emily Merten

Prioritizing health

Psychology senior Aava Salehi has Type 1 diabetes  and said keeping her insulin cool would be a top concern during a power shutoff. Insulin needs to be kept refrigerated when opened, Salehi said. 

“I would hope that if [Cal Poly does] have access to a power generator, they would prioritize people with diabetes who need to store their insulin because the effects and the repercussions of not getting enough insulin can be deadly,” Salehi said. 

One of Cal Poly’s generators will power the Health Center to continue essential functions, according to Lazier. Sierra Vista Medical Center also has backup generators, Konopa said. 

However, Knight said students with medicine or prescriptions should make sure they have a sufficient stock in case they cannot get refills. People with electronic assistant devices should make sure to keep devices near a full charge. 

“First responders are not necessarily going to be able to come and rescue you with everything that could be going on,” Konopa said.

“While it’s inconvenient for all of us to have a really hot house, if you’re on a ventilator and only have six hours of backup power and the power is going to be out for 36 hours, that could mean life or death,” Konopa said. 

During the Oct. 9 shutoff, a person who was reliant on oxygen died 12 minutes after the shutoff in El Dorado County, according to Newsweek.  

“First responders are not necessarily going to be able to come and rescue you with everything that could be going on,” Konopa said. “That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t call 911 in an emergency, obviously, but the more prepared you can be on your own, the better.”

During a news conference Oct. 10, PG&E Chief Executive Officer Bill Johnson said despite frustration, PG&E will continue to shut off power to avoid lives lost. Emily Merten | Mustang News

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How to prepare

Although the university and the county have made plans, private companies such as gas stations and grocery stores are on their own for backup power. Since backup generators are expensive, not many private businesses are likely to have them, Konopa said.

Konopa and Knight recommended preparing an emergency kit with a three day supply of water, backup medication and food. More information on kits is available at emergency.calpoly.edu and readyslo.org.

After going through the first three-day PSPS, Sonoma State sophomore Bijan Soltani recommended having a backup light source. 

“That was a big game changer,” Soltani said. “Nobody else had a glow stick.”

Soltani also said he was glad to be able to leave the shutoff zone. Knight suggested that people with cars should keep their gas tanks at least half full at all times. 

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“Most of our gas stations aren’t on emergency power, so know you won’t be able to fill up your vehicle if you’re trying to get somewhere or get resources,” Knight said. 

If community members intend to drive or leave the area during a power shutoff, Caltrans officials said all stop lights should be treated as four-way stops until power has resumed. 

Konopa said she wants people to be informed about a potential PSPS so they can make a plan based on their needs and be prepared.

Students can also sign up for text alerts about potential PSPS in the county by texting “ENROLL” to 97633.

“The school is doing everything it can, the community is doing everything we can, but personal preparedness and awareness is huge,” Knight said. “This is real, this could happen.”

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