Editorials ~ Sonoma Valley Sun


Fires and power shutdowns: what have we learned?

Posted on November 7, 2019 by Sonoma Valley Sun

That PG&E is ill-prepared to cope with periods of hot, windy weather is now painfully obvious. That the utility has spent its profits on shareholder dividends and executive bonuses, instead of upgrading and improving the safety of its infrastructure, is shameful. And its reliance on wooden poles with uninsulated high-tension electrical transmission wires, an innovation of the 19th century, seems absurdly outdated.

City, County, and Federal agencies learned much from the 2017 disasters; first of all, how unprepared they (and we) were. Much earnest study and planning have happened since then. It’s good work, but it must continue. 

The recent power shutdowns show that the emergency alert “system” – the confusing, often conflicting barrage of messages from the Sheriff, PG&E, City, County, not to mention well-meaning social media posts – is untenable.

Like the old power lines swaying in the breeze, the technology itself is incredibly fragile. It all comes down to your computer or phone. And be it an iPhone 10 or a $10 burner, the thing is useless without a reliable signal and a consistent power source. Neither can be counted on. So then what?

In Sonoma County, during the Kincade Fire and Public Safety Power Shutoff, 118 cell towers were down. Senator Mike McGuire, introducing a bill to require more backup systems to keep cell towers energized longer, said, “Telecom executives assured us this worst case scenario, hundreds of cell towers going down due to the lack of power, wouldn’t happen. It’s simply not true. It’s time California steps up and mandates cell towers have backup power. This bill isn’t about checking your Facebook status. It’s about life and death.”

The internet is just as vulnerable. Service is subject to router failure and its own infrastructure challenges. Those charging stations/hot spots the City and County set up? No internet service for large chunks of the day. So you could charge your devices but not really use them.

But what did you miss, really? That flood of messages from a handful of “authorities” with the “latest” bulletin? A rash of frantic social media posts from the misinformed that add to a general sense of stress and worry? 

A community literally in the dark needs more than a place to charge a cell phone. The designated emergency community centers (at the Veterans Building and Hanna Center, for example), could also offer City/County-provided ice, refrigerators for perishable medicine, even cots for people who must sleep with medical devices.

Few can realistically afford a generator; many can’t  afford lanterns, flashlights, and all the back-up batteries a family might need. Can nonprofits step in to provide these necessities?  Somehow we need to make this emergency equipment available now, to people who lack it. PG&E says this situation may last for a decade; we can’t wait that long to be better prepared.

— Sun Editorial Board


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