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PG&E’s plan could set stage for train-car crashes, looting
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PG&E’s wildfire safety plan — developed without any state oversight — could put many more people in jeopardy than it puts people out of jeopardy.

That’s judging by concerns raised by Del Webb at Woodbridge residents Monday about PG&E’s plan to potentially pull the plug on power for 2 to 5 days — and the answers officials provided — during an overflow meeting at the community’s clubhouse that had more than 200 people in attendance.

Cutting to the chase, the concerns center around major public safety issues PG&E will be creating if they cut power to a transmission line that serves much of San Joaquin County due to extreme wildfire conditions that could literally be 60 or more miles away in order to reduce their wildfire liability.

There are three major concerns residents raised including two “elephants in the room” that local officials preparing for the PG&E made emergency are planning for that not a lot of people are asking questions about. 

The first is the most pressing and deals with those dependent on electricity driven medical devices to stay alive that are not designed with batteries to last for the duration of a 2 to 5 day power outage.

Now for the proverbial elephants that are in the room that everyone has been tip-toeing around.

Of those one involves how secure their homes will be with all power out including street lights.

The other involves those pesky 14 at-grade railroad crossings in Manteca where more than 50 trains a day rumble through at speeds in excess of 50 mph.

In response to a resident’s question about security, Manteca Police Lt. Paul Carmona said early on in such an outage all of the department’s nearly 80 uniformed police officers would go from working 10 hour shifts to 12 hour shifts with days off and vacations cancelled. They would have roughly 40 officers on the streets at any time — a significant jump over normal conditions.

Carmona said in a worst case scenario the biggest concern will be potential looting of retail establishments and other businesses. Few, if any, stores will be open.

While it is important that people watch out for each other, law enforcement isn’t exactly keen on volunteer neighborhood patrols. That said there are rare exceptions such as the nightly Del Webb Neighborhood Watch citizens based patrol the governing board will consider allowing to be reinstated in the event of an emergency created by PG&E.

One resident pointed out the dilemma the suggestion creates that residents, should they be faced with having to go 2 to 5 days without electricity, may want to go stay with family and friends in areas not effected by a power outage. She was concerned about how secure her house and belongings would be if her home was left unoccupied.

The rail crossing concern might actually be the most serious assuming everyone stays calm.

That’s because those crossing arms and flashing red lights only have a six-hour battery backup. The city lacks personnel to cover all of the crossings.

The good news is Union Pacific engineers when there are issues with inoperable crossing gates slow down considerably. The bad news is it is highly unlikely for all motorists will stop and look both ways every time they reach a railroad crossing. The bright side is not very many people will be clamoring for a quiet zone along the railroad corridor if PG&E’s move to reduce their wildfire liability ends up rendering all railroad crossing arms and signals useless after six hours.

Then there is one item that was hinted at but skirted. Limited water production caused by treated surface water only having a six hour supply when the power goes out and that not all municipal wells have backup generators could mean a fire in Manteca could be more difficult to put out.

That’s because of a drop in water pressure hence the plea officials have been saying over and over again — only use water for absolutely essential purposes if PG&E pulls the plug for 2 to 5 days.

And even with a complete call back of all firefighters, if a wildfire develops elsewhere based on state mutual aid staffing will be reduced as crews are sent to battle major fires.

Given PG&E’s representative was unable to say definitively if power would ever be knocked out on purpose to Manteca or other areas far away from fire zones, one resident asked whether all of this constituted a giant scare tactic on PG&E’s part.

PG&E asking for a 12 percent plus rate hike as well as the company’s efforts to secure legislative relief from wildfire liability certainly could give such perspective credence.

To contact Dennis Wyatt, email