Rochelle Abrams was at home on the afternoon of June 21 when, without warning, the electricity shut off.
Like thousands of other residents in San Mateo County, her family lost power as the Edgewood Fire erupted along the nearby Edgewood Park and Nature Preserve. But for Abrams, it wasn't the loss of the refrigerator or internet that worried her most — it was her family's electricity-dependent medical devices.
"The 40 hours without power were the worst," she said. "It was really difficult."
Abrams lives with her elderly parents in a three-story, single-family home in the Emerald Hills neighborhood. Her 83-year-old father has dementia and relies on a CPAP machine at night to treat his sleep apnea. Her mother, who's 78 and has multiple sclerosis, uses a nebulizer and oxygen concentrator multiple times a day to breathe. Because of MS-related balance and strength issues, she also needs a chairlift to move between the three floors of their house.
"We all kind of care for each other," said Abrams, who has her own disability.
On a typical day, her mother makes several round trips in the chairlift between her bedroom and the first floor to eat meals and use her nebulizer. When the power went out, she was forced to reduce it to one trip per day to conserve the chair's limited backup battery. Her nebulizer and oxygen concentrators, on the other hand, were completely dark.
The hospital encouraged her to come in to use their nebulizer, but the treatment was expensive, and she worried about possible COVID-19 exposure. Without supportive oxygen, Abrams' mother struggled to breathe for hours on end.
"She calls it a 'crazy head,'" Abrams said. "She can't think straight."
In addition to the respiratory issues, her mother's MS was exacerbated by the unusually hot weather, which they had to endure without air conditioning. And staying well-nourished without power was an additional challenge.
"We ate a lot of crap food," Abrams said. "I (was) trying to figure out how to feed two people without power, with food that was going bad."
Though now contained, the Edgewood Fire was just the beginning for Abrams and her family. In the three weeks following the blaze, she counted seven more power outages — and she's hardly the only one.
Roughly 1,137 PG&E customers in the area have experienced repeated power outages in the last several weeks, which have caused disruptions of everything from medical treatments and child care to remote working and food preparation.
"These outages are related to damaged electric equipment due to the Edgewood Fire, which continues to impact how the system operates," said PG&E spokesperson Mayra Tostado, adding that recent high temperatures put an additional strain on the system.
Several residents reported hearing a loud boom right before the fire started, which they speculated may have been from a blown transformer at the nearby substation, an electrical casualty of the sweltering temperatures.
Cal Fire has declined to comment on the cause of the fire, which officials said remains under active investigation.
Tostado said that repairs were still being scheduled in the weeks since the fire. She warned that repairs might result in additional outages "to complete the work safely" and said that customers would be notified in advance. PG&E is also conducting additional patrols and power line safety inspections to identify and prevent further issues.
Additionally, the company's Enhanced Powerline Safety Settings "help prevent wildfires by turning off power automatically in one-tenth of a second when a hazard, such as a tree limb striking a powerline, is detected," according to Tostado. These settings are typically in place when there is an increased wildfire risk, during the months of May through November, she said.
In a survey conducted by the Redwood City Pulse, 71 participants shared details about how they were affected by recent outages.
Among the responders, over 50% had more than four power outages in the past few weeks, many lasting more than eight hours at a time.
One woman, who suffers from a condition that affects her ability to sweat and relies on fans to cool down, said she became "very sick" in the heat. Her husband, who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, was similarly unable to use his air purifier.
Robert Janssen told the Pulse that the outages affected his ability to work from home, causing disruptions early in the morning and late at night. PG&E, he said, "definitely could have done better."
"And if our power goes off every week for the next year, that's not OK," he added.
Other residents described hundreds of dollars in wasted food, lost billable hours, wiring shorts and other damaged appliances. Many expressed frustrations towards PG&E, which they said sent out delayed notifications, if at all.
Becky Miller said that she had to throw out "several hundreds dollars of food" in her refrigerator after several rounds of outages.
"Not to mention our PG&E bills have been astronomical for service that keeps getting interrupted," Miller added. "It's actually kind of obscene to be charged as much as we're being charged. I feel like the rates are absolutely absurd and the service is subpar."
But these were all "inconveniences" compared with what Miller described as the larger problem: being completely shut off from the world.
"We have terrible cell reception up on the hill, so if our power goes out, we are literally cut off from everything," she said. "This was especially terrifying during the fire in Edgewood as we were unable to reach family, get updates or even get official evacuation notices."
Until a crisis hits, she added, "You don't realize how much you rely on electricity for everything you do, especially communication."
Another Emerald Hills resident lamented difficulties navigating in the dark. "We are seniors forced to depend on flashlights and lanterns to maneuver in the dark," she wrote in the survey. "We receive slow updates with weak explanations."
"I feel like we (the community) are paying the price for PG&E's underinvestment in technology and lack of undergrounding of power lines," another participant commented.
In a statement to the Pulse, Tostado apologized for PG&E's unplanned outages and delayed restoration estimates, which she attributed to "the complexity involving repairs and the stress on the grid due to recent high temperatures." Tostado directed customers to the PG&E Outage Center for additional information about unplanned outages.
Several residents have also complained about being charged by PG&E for estimated usage on days when they were completely without power. According to Tostado, these estimates should be automatically corrected once the customers' power is restored and the system detects zero usage during the outage period.
For Abrams' part, she's well aware of her parents' reliance on electric-powered medical devices. And, fearing a situation like this one, she'd taken steps to prevent it.
In October 2021, she applied for PG&E's Portable Battery Program, which, according to the utility company, "provides backup batteries for qualifying customers who rely on power for medical devices." But, according to Abrams, she never heard back.
When the fire broke out in June, she began inquiring about her application and was redirected to the Central Coast Energy Services, a PG&E partner. They instructed her to reapply, which she did that same day.
Abrams has yet to receive any updates.
"We're nine months into trying to get this thing," she said, exasperated. "We wouldn't have had to worry about nebulizing our oxygen; we would have been able to use the CPAP machine. And that would have solved a lot of problems.
"So the problem for us is twofold," she added. "It's not just that the outage happened; it's that they didn't do the job in the first place."
on Jul 26, 2022 at 10:39 am
on Jul 26, 2022 at 10:39 am
Unfortunately with our aging infrastructure and Public Safety Power Shutoffs we now need more backup power options like batteries and generators. Especially for anyone with medical needs.
Portable power stations are useful for CPAP and other smaller devices, but a generator or large batteries are necessary for poweringrefrigerator and air conditioning.
on Jul 27, 2022 at 6:14 am
on Jul 27, 2022 at 6:14 am
In the "old days", electric utilities focused on two things -- reliability and keeping prices down. Electricity became so reliable that activists from two sides started plundering the utilities: one side siphoned off money to executives and Wall Street while the other side forced utilities to fund its social causes.
Now we are left with electricity that is quite expensive, unreliable and causes damage and injury to millions because of the long lack of systems investment. The goose that laid the golden egg is officially dead.