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City scrambling to put emergency plans in place before wildfire season arrives
PGE Fire
Some of the 14,000 plus homes destroyed in Butte County during last year’s Camp Fire.

Manteca is scrambling to get an emergency plan in place after being told by PG&E they will cut off electricity to the entire city for up to five days when conditions in high risk areas in the Sierra in Calaveras and Tuolumne counties warrant it during the upcoming wildfire season.

Manteca Fire Chief Kyle Shipherd advised the City Council Tuesday PG&E contacted the city to tell them the transmission line that serves Manteca will be de-energized for up to five days when high winds and conditions make the start of destructive wildfires more likely. Had the policy — in response to the November fire in Butte County that killed 85 people and burned 14,000 homes as well as 5,000 additional structures that the company concedes, and state fire officials contend, improperly maintained power lines triggered — been in place for the past two years Manteca would have experienced three complete blackouts ranging from one to five days.

The warning is also being issued to other valley cities that are far from wildfire prone areas but are along transmission lines that serve such areas.

Medical equipment

to keep people alive

is a high priority

Among the top priorities is the establishment of charging stations at the city’s four fire stations for Manteca residents that rely on powered medical equipment to stay alive. Shipherd said the department will need to establish additional charging stations as the ones already in place are expected to be inadequate to handle the expected demand for medical equipment backup battery recharging.

Public Works Director Mark Houghton noted the city has backup generators capable of keeping the wastewater treatment plant operating as well as the municipal water wells. The city relies on a combination of treated surface water and well water.

But if the power is cut off during a hot spell and people resort to going outside and using water to cool off, it could create a major strain on the system and send water supplies precariously low as happened during a 12-hour electricity outage that impacted Northern California and a number of western states for 12 hours some 15 years ago in the middle of a 110-degree heat wave. And while South San Joaquin Irrigation District has water storage tanks it is not clear how much capacity of the surface water treatment plant could be kept going by solar power and backup generators without water over a blackout period of up to five days without water use being curtailed significantly in Manteca, Lathrop, and Tracy that rely on the plant.

Since electricity would be out all traffic signals as well as street lights would go dark.

Shipherd said fire stations have their own fuel storage. That is a critical consideration given without electricity gasoline pumps could not operate.

The fire chief added that in the event of a PG&E imposed citywide blackout his department expects a significant upswing in emergency calls.

The city’s ability to communicate with its 83,750 residents would be sharply curtailed. Computers need power to operate and smartphones and tablets that have batteries have to be recharged.

It would be like going

back to the Dark Ages

Shipherd said that would make radio the only viable alternative.

“It’s almost like going back to the Dark Ages,” Councilman Jose Nuño commented.

Households besides not being able to power any appliance, apparatus, lights or run air conditioning and fans would also not be able to recharge batteries. There would also be an inability to buy gasoline or to recharge electric vehicles anywhere in the impacted area.

Councilwoman Debby Moorhead underscored the importance of households being prepared for the likelihood of not having power for up to five days as stores would not be able to sell items given the reliance on electricity for a wide variety of functions including being able to process transactions.

“What would grocery stores do?” Moorhead wondered out loud in reference to perishable items.

The answer can be found from what happened in Calistoga in the Napa wine country and nearby areas as well as the Sierra foothills east of Sacramento where PG&E cut off power for two days during mid-October in response to high winds and dry conditions.

In Calistoga four businesses — the Calistoga Inn, Palisades Deli Café, Calistoga Creamery, and Calistoga Roastery — had combined losses in excess of $20,000 during the two-day mandatory cutoff. The Calistoga Roastery lost a day’s business and had to toss more than $1,000 worth of perishable item. It was one of 146 claims that was submitted to PG&E and rejected. The firm’s insurance company wouldn’t cover the losses as the power was turned off as a preventative measure.

More than 42,000 people were without power for two days last October in the foothills east of Sacramento. Several grocery stores lost all of their produce, meat, dairy products, and frozen foods.

Since the October outage was during the school year, a number of school districts cancelled classes. A similar situation in Manteca would impact at least the Manteca and Lathrop campuses of the Manteca Unified School District impacting more than 20,000 students plus 2,000 staff members.

The universal power cutoff would also hit employment centers. Perhaps the companies facing the biggest threats would be Lineage Refrigeration Services with more than 350,000 square feet of cold storage as well as the 20,000 square-foot Dryers Ice Cream storage structure in Spreckels Park. Five days without electricity could jeopardize their ability to keep hundreds of thousands of dollars in frozen goods.

Such outages would also impact rural residents and farms that rely on pumps to operate water wells.

City Manager Tim Ogden noted the situation would seem strange at best given Manteca residents would not be able to see flames and likely not even smoke in the distance as no wildfire may be sparked just as what happened when PG&E de-energized power lines to select areas in October.

Ogden said the city likely would not post tips on what to do on the city website but instead refer residents to the PG&E website. That’s because while the city would have to deal with the consequences, the entire situation is being created by PG&E.

PG&E warns Manteca

customers to be prepared

PG&E is advising those in areas prone to decisions to de-energy power lines  to avoid wildfires that now includes all of Manteca to create an emergency supply kit with enough supplies to last up to a week. That includes:

Setting aside one gallon of drinking water per person per day.

Non-perishable food that is easy to prepare without power.

Non-electric can opener along with forks, spoons, and knives.

Adequate baby and pet food if a household has either.

Flashlights (Do not use candles.)

At last two extra sets of batteries.

A battery-powered or hand-crank weather radio.

A mobile phone with a portable charger.

Basic first aid kits, prescriptions and non-prescription medicine.

Toiletries, activities for children, blankets, and clothing.

Cash and credit cards (If possible out aside at least $100 in cash.)

Important documents and other useful items such as paper towels and rash bags.

PG&E also is advising people to know how to turn off their main electricity switch so when power comes back on so the surge won’t ruin appliances. They also indicate you should learn how to open your car door manually and if you have a standby emergency generator to make sure it is working and has fuel.

A third of PG&E’s

15 million customers

face going up to 5 days

without electricity

PG&E, whose territory covers two thirds of California and includes 15 million people, has indicated as many as 5 million customers face possible preventative power cutoffs including Manteca although not all at the same time.

Besides the deadly Butte County for in November, PG&E is being blamed as the primary culprit by the state and in lawsuits for the 2017 Wine Country fires that burned 178,000 acres, killed 36 people, and destroyed more than 6,000 structures.

To avoid a repeat when the National Weather Service issues an extreme fire danger advisory due to low humidity, dry conditions, warm temperatures, and winds are in excess of 55 mph PG&E will de-energy power grids tied to the affected areas. The California Public Utilities Commission requires electrical providers’ distribution system poles to withstand winds of 56 mph for 60 seconds.

 To contact Dennis Wyatt, email