Citing a weather forecast that is ideal for wildfires, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) implemented precautionary power outages last week in Northern California, to reduce the risk of sparks from its electrical equipment or a downed line.
As a result, hundreds of thousands of California homes and workplaces were without electricity for days last week, mostly impacting the Sacramento and San Francisco areas.
California utilities and the State Office of Emergency Services have been trying to provide residents and business owners with advance notice, but information about where and when power would be shut off – and turned back on again – has often been inaccurate or hard to find.
As a result, travel advisors have had to scramble to plan and execute business continuity plans, and then adapt as the shutoffs have rolled in and out of their communities like the fickle California winds.
Lori McDonald, a Cruise Planners franchisee in San Ramon, California, started looking for alternative work locations on Tuesday, Oct. 8, after considering PG&E’s Monday afternoon notice that they might have to turn off her power on Wednesday.
“The power outages were based on grids. PG&E had websites showing what areas would be impacted, and you could enter street addresses to see where the outages would be. I called a hotel about 2.5 miles southeast of me, not in the outage area, and booked a room for Wednesday and Thursday nights using hotel points. I chose a Residence Inn so I could bring some perishables from my house,” McDonald said.
“This event just underscores the need for having a plan in place. I am very fortunate that I have a Cruise Planners colleague, and we’ve agreed to help each other out during times of extended travel or in cases of emergency.”
McDonald uses a web-based customer relationship management system that can be accessed by her Cruise Planners colleague, and an online system for backing up all client travel documents and related information. “When you are a California agent, you have to be in a constant state of readiness,” said McDonald.
Based in the San Jose area, Anita Pagliasso, president of Ticket to Travel, also planned to use a hotel, the San Jose Fairmont, when she heard that her electricity could be out for several days. However, the power was off for only a few hours.
“The Fairmont took my last-minute, non-refundable reservation, and then when my power was restored, they were kind enough to cancel without penalty, saying ‘We're here to help our neighbors,’” Pagliasso said. “Big kudos to the front desk at the Fairmont.”
Mindful of last year’s Camp Fire, which killed 86 people, utilities throughout the state are considering the possibility of similar planned outages when forecasts are for low humidity and high winds.
On Friday, Barbara Oliver, owner at Romantic Journeys, in Santa Clarita, California, had not yet lost electricity, while the Saddleridge fire consumed thousands of acres less than 15 miles away.
If her electricity was cut, Oliver planned to use her iPhone as a hot spot to stay in touch with clients via email. She also uses the web-based telecom company, RingCentral, to route calls to her cell phone and/or backup agents if her landline was shut down.
Diane Embree, an independent contractor at Michaels Travel Centre, in Westlake Village, California, wasn’t impacted by the shutdowns last week, but she did lose power for several days last year during the Hill and Woolsey Fires.
“I was charging some devices with my car battery. I also have a hot spot that I used for internet access,” Embree said. “At one point, the cell tower near me burned down, so I had to take my laptop and hot spot to an area that used a different tower. I drove around until I found a spot where I could connect, and sat at a table outside a market to check emails.”
Confusion makes planning more difficult
Last week, residents, businesses, and state leaders complained about the lack of accurate information, and often inaccurate updates, from PG&E. The confusion made planning difficult for travel advisors in the impacted areas.
“It’s beyond frustrating that we’re in this situation,” said State Senator Bill Dodd, who represents the Napa, California area, a region heavily damaged by wildfires in 2017.
“Public safety power shutoffs have a role to play when they’re needed to prevent massive wildfires and the huge human and economic costs we’ve seen in recent years. However, many of my constituents are disturbed that the power was shut down before the winds started to pick up in the North Bay,” Dodd said in a statement on his website.
“I must've received over a dozen emergency/urgent phone messages. No one understood exactly what was going to happen and when,” said Pagliasso, who subscribed to PG&E’s text system to stay ahead of changes.
“They gave us times to expect the shut down, and then continued to miss those shutdown times,” Pagliasso said. “They gave us websites to check the status, and those sites never worked. Everyone was filling up gas tanks, buying out anything with batteries, emptied refrigerators for basically a non-event where I'm located.”
“I'm a second-generation Californian and it's hard to believe that this could happen here,” Pagliasso said. “I'm all for keeping people safe, but this was a complete failure. Curfews? State of Emergency? I'm very grateful for having my power back, but I'm still shaking my head at this whole event.”
PG&E CEO Bill Johnson apologized for the company’s communications, saying “we faced a choice here between hardships on everyone or safety, and we chose safety. And I do apologize for the hardship this has caused, but I think we made the right call on safety."
With the wildfire season far from over, California advisors are reviewing and refining their continuity plans.
“Unfortunately, there is a high likelihood we will go through this again,” McDonald said. “Judging from the map of the areas impacted, it looks like the closer you are to the hills, the higher the chances PG&E will shut off power during low humidity/high wind events. Since I live at the base of the hills in a valley, I can expect to go through this again. The wind gusts were well over 70 mph on some of the hilltops. All it takes is one branch falling on a power line and we have another disaster like the Paradise fire last year.”
Expressing gratitude that, this time, her power was out less than a day, McDonald is researching shared work spaces that may not be impacted by future power outages. “I can’t rely on hotel points, so I’m working on plans if/when I lose power again,” she said.