SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Joe Fatula left the Bay Area in 2017 wanting to settle down in the mountains somewhere quiet. He chose Colfax, a small town rich with Gold Country history, and became mayor last year with the goal of boosting business on Main Street.
But his sanctuary turned apocalyptic in October. Every gas station, grocery store and restaurant closed due to massive power shutoffs as part of the state's efforts to avoid a major wildfire. The mayor found himself loaning out his personal pickup truck and RV, which have built-in generators, to the town's 2,000 residents as they scrambled to save food in their refrigerators, charge their phones and find a way to stay warm.
At all levels of government — from state officials to small-town mayors — California leaders are in uncharted territory, and scrambling to adjust their plans and operations to the realities of regular disruption. For now, their only answer to calamitous wildfires is shutting off power to millions of residents in advance, which residents now lament as a man-made disaster. Mike McGuire, the state senator representing the Santa Rosa area devastated by fires in 2017, said California is “the canary in the coal mine" as climate change threatens to upend life across the world.
Residents in some of California's most bucolic settings are stuck figuring it out on their own, rich and poor, urban and rural alike. While Fatula navigated his working-class community with generators in his pickup, NBA star LeBron James was forced to flee his estate near Los Angeles in the middle of the night, "driving around with my family trying to get rooms," he said in a tweet.
“It’s a hardship you don't expect to go through,” Fatula said. “I don’t want to beat people up over this because it’s a new territory that everybody is in, but we’ve asked a number of agencies for help and we’ve gotten a weak response.”
In the long-term, the state's brightest minds have offered plenty of ideas: move power lines underground; microgrids; better forest management; no new homes in areas surrounded by desiccated hillsides. In the meantime, what wildfires and their accompanying blackouts mean is that every level of government in the most populated U.S. state is scrambling to govern with this reality.
Changes California leaders envision could take a decade or more to have an impact. After shying away from shutoffs last year before the historic Camp Fire, which killed more than 80 people and virtually decimated the town of Paradise, Pacific Gas & Electric Company moved in the opposite direction this fall. The utility aggressively cut power across vast swaths of Northern California, from the Silicon Valley to the Sierra Nevada.
Gov. Gavin Newsom has blamed both PG&E and climate change, and communities across the state are slowly accepting that regular power outages and wildfires are part of the new California experience.
School districts are penciling in “emergency days” instead of snow days and planning for “disaster relief summer school." Hospitals assume they will rely more on backup generators and are determining criteria for transferring patients during blackouts. Local governments are making room in already tight budgets for emergency repairs, just in case.
Power shutoffs affecting millions of residents at a time may avert wildfires. But they have introduced their own issues, not least of which is damaging local economies when businesses must close.
“Utilities have taken a meat cleaver approach with power shutoffs when they should be using a scalpel,” said McGuire, who represents California’s rugged North Coast. “It has taken an incredible toll on communities.”
Blackouts have also exposed a major communications gap: When cell towers lose power, it's impossible for endangered residents to seek help.
“The whole city was down,” said Fatula, who has requested funding from the state and Placer County to keep cell towers powered after the city lost access to phones and the internet. “The bad part would’ve been if a fire actually happened during one of these events. How would we even tell people to get out of their homes?”
Meanwhile, communities are turning any building with a generator and space into makeshift emergency shelters where people can go for power, sleep or just a hot cup of coffee.
“We want to harden our schools to this new phenomenon because they will be a place people can go,” said Marianne Boll-See, president of the Black Oak Mine Teachers Association, whose rural Sierra foothills district was hit hard by shutoffs. “People are now looking to our schools as a source of information.”
Developing new 'muscle memory'
Low-income Californians who depend on the state for resources have been especially disrupted.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has so far approved more than $6 million in SNAP benefit replacements for those who suffered food losses as a result of losing power, according to the California Department of Social Services. The state estimated that more than 75,000 households that rely on CalFresh — California’s version of the federal food program — were impacted.
During the outages, social services employees were on the phone rerouting trucks to food banks that were abruptly relocated and working with groups like the Red Cross to set up emergency shelters. Assisted living centers scrambled to create new evacuation plans and keep relatives updated. The state’s In-Home Supportive Services program, for disabled people over 65, sought places to refrigerate insulin or power up oxygen tanks.
The very places where people go in times of need are vulnerable, too. Hospitals and community clinics are developing new “muscle memory” to cope, buying air filtration systems to reduce the risk of smoke polluting indoor air and securing housing and hotel rooms for displaced physicians and nurses.
“If we don't have places for our caregivers to stay, then we don't have a hospital to operate,” Chad Krilich, chief medical officer for Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, told POLITICO.
Some hospitals put in place emergency outreach teams, deploying them into neighborhoods without power to ensure patients have access to life-saving medication, refrigeration and other critical medical supplies.
Hospitals in the hardest-hit regions said they're not waiting for utility companies to announce power shutoffs. They've come to expect it.
"The biggest thing we learned is let's just be ready, so we plan for this to happen every year," Krilich said. "Then if it doesn't, we can just have a party."
California Health and Human Services Secretary Mark Ghaly told POLITICO that the state has begun to develop backup emergency plans, working with cities, counties, labor unions and health care organizations to coordinate medical services. The state also set up an emergency hotline for people to call in case they couldn't access prescriptions or other health care needs.
As they lost power this year, residents grew increasingly frustrated and anxious after being forced from their homes and things went wrong.
“This could have easily become more of a life or death issue for people who had serious health needs. I think the state, through a lot of partnerships, got this part right," Ghaly said.
State health officials and hospital administrators say they are better equipped to relocated patients with less critical needs and transfer them to nearby clinics or acute care facilities. The state also connected disabled and vulnerable patients with medical transportation and power during blackouts, Ghaly said.
Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane called the power outages “man-made disasters” and said that while they’ve compounded issues — her residents can’t pump water from wells without electricity — they also helped them practice for a real life event.
The county was struck by deadly fires in 2017, and it has changed how it operates in recent years. Sonoma shares social workers, firefighters and police officers with surrounding areas in times of trouble.
The county’s Department of Emergency Management was quick to send out alerts and calls for evacuations early and often in October. The county has added staff to contact the medically fragile during a shutoff.
But preparation costs money. The county is in the midst of calculating how much overtime costs the latest fire and outages will total.
State leaders have praised the resiliency of California’s towns and say they've tried to avoid placing blame on local officials since everyone is living through power shutoffs together for the first time — though there's still no shortage of criticism for PG&E.
“I’m not faulting anyone this year because the way that it was handled by PG&E was terrible,” Sen. Bill Dodd (D-Napa) told POLITICO. “What we're hoping is that [the shutoffs] in the future are more direct, more targeted to only happen when there’s an imminent threat of loss of life or significant property damage. But hope is not a great strategy.”
Mark Ghilarducci, who oversees state disaster response as Office of Emergency Services director, said utilities need to be more engaged with government if they're going to be involved in public safety decisions of this magnitude.
“They have to think like and act like a public safety organization would. The decisions that are made have consequences, and the consequences in these particular cases are potentially life-threatening,” he told POLITICO.
State leaders are facing increasing calls to step up, with school districts, cities and counties demanding more assistance. The state Senate’s Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee will hold a hearing next month on the phone outages and “ensuring a reliable lifeline for Californians.”
And the state itself is looking for help too, with OES calling on energy and telecom companies to improve or face consequences.
"The length at which this went, going on six or seven days, really took a toll on everybody," Ghilarducci said. "We're trying to anticipate and fill the gaps; every day, new gaps and new challenges would emerge."
One silver lining to the shutoffs is that they’ve served as a dress rehearsal for a disaster that the state has always foreseen: when the so-called Big One earthquake strikes.
"Even as bad as we've seen events, there's still more to come, and we can't sit back on our laurels and high-five it," Ghilarducci said. "We still have more to do to be prepared."