Atmospheric river could cause widespread outages, North State residents share their tips on how to prepare
The National Weather Service is predicting high winds of around 50 miles per hour, which have the potential to cause widespread power outages that last for several days.
But North State residents — and Californians in general — are no strangers to power outages. Events like public safety power shutoffs (PSPS) due to dangerous fire weather conditions or blackouts during winter storms have become commonplace in this region.
Between the years 2000 and 2021, California had the third most reported weather-related power outages in the nation. According to a report from the nonprofit Climate Central, more than one-third of California’s weather-related outages happened in just the last three years. The report attributed the increase in power outages to growing wildfire risks, and consequential PSPS events to prevent powerlines from sparking fires.
As many North State residents have become experts at surviving power outages, we asked for your tips on how to best prepare.
We’re republishing those answers, as well as advice from experts, as residents across the region prepare for the possibility of losing power during this week’s series of storms.
Many residents bought a generator after weathering repeated or extended power outages. Barbara Wabs of Los Molinos, Tehama County, told NSPR that after experiencing a power outage of several days after the 2018 Camp Fire, she realized it was crucial for her family to own a generator.
“Before we had [the] generator we didnt have hot water or anything. So [getting a] generator became #1 priority.” Wabs wrote to NSPR.
Others agreed — Cori Madrigal of Cottonwood, Shasta County, said she planned for everything in her home to run on her generator.
“Best thing that we did, was to have our house hard wired for a good size generator. It runs just about everything from our well to our AC in power outages,” Madrigal wrote.
Other residents, as well as public officials, also recommend keeping gas and propane on hand to run generators for one or two weeks.
Price points for backup generators fluctuate with demand, often putting the devices out of some household’s budgets. Barbara Wabs said her family bought a used generator on Craigslist for $250, but made sure to check that the device was in working condition.
Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) told NSPR that the company provides rebates on generator purchases for customers who rely on electricity to run their wells. Some organizations, like the North State nonprofit Disability Action Center, connect clients with grant funding to purchase generators.
During power outages, refrigerated or frozen food comes under risk of spoiling. That can cost hundreds of dollars to replace as well as present some food-related health risks. If you don’t own a generator to run the refrigerator, North State community members recommend freezing water bottles or purchasing ice to store in the freezer ahead of time.
Ann Weber, from the community of Lakehead in Shasta County, said managing refrigeration is simpler in the winter when she can fill her tub with ice or snow and store some in the refrigerator with the door closed.
“And basically, then you have an ice box. Speaking in my mother's terms,” Weber said.
In the summer, however, Weber said things may be more complicated. Lakehead experiences PSPS events — rapid power shutoffs in response to dangerous fire weather conditions— that increase in the summer and fall Weber said that means she can’t run air conditioning in her house and summer temperatures can reach over 100 degrees.
“I can deal. In the summertime, I sleep with a wet towel,” Weber said.
PG&E’s website says the utility offers community resource centers for each affected community during a PSPS. These centers offer air conditioning and heating, wi-fi, and restrooms among other resources.
Other North State residents mentioned heat and cooling as well. One respondent said she keeps extra heavy down blankets and a wood stove for boiling water. Mary Goldthwaite from Redding recommended keeping doors and windows closed in the winter to conserve heat and open in the summertime for a breeze. During summer power outages, one respondent said, it helps to take the family to a lake to cool off.
For the many North State residents reliant on an electricity-powered well system, power outages can cut residents off from a source of running water if they don’t have a generator.
In advance of a planned power outage, residents can do more to prepare for losing access to running water. Gina Valoroso of Flournoy in Plumas County recommended filling the kitchen sink with water for dishes, having water sitting in the bathroom sink for washing, storing water in the tub for flushing the toilet, and storing jugs of water for cooking and drinking.
Valoroso said she buys five gallon jugs of water for cooking and drinking with. Other residents say to always have bottled water on hand.
The nonprofit the Red Cross advises storing at least one gallon of water per person per day in case of emergencies. Households should store a two week supply of water for each family member, according to the Red Cross.
Several community members wrote about the importance of solar-powered electronics. Tracey Wilcox from Red Bluff recommends North State residents use solar lights instead of candles.
“You can charge them through the day and use them at night for 6/8 hrs and no chance of getting knocked over and starting a fire,” Wilcox wrote to NSPR.
Some residents recommended handheld lights with batteries bright enough to act as lamps if stood in a room. One resident recommended keeping a solar power bank.
Preparing a stay-box
Much like the wildfire go-bag, power outage veterans say it’s important to keep essentials nearby in case of a power outage.
Carla Velador, who is active in the Facebook group “Concow & Yankee Hill Community”, wrote to NSPR that preparing for evacuation from wildfire comes hand in hand with preparing for a fire-related power outage.
“Up in the foothills our outages are usually fire or weather related. Both trigger our ‘emergency button’ to make sure we are prepared.” Velador wrote to NSPR.
That means drawing lists of items to keep in a power outage-specific place and keeping essentials at hand in case of an outage. In early fall, Velador says her community switches to preparing for the likelihood of being snowed in during winter outages.
Velador, like other North State residents, purchases items and prepares for outages over long periods of time.
Pete Moak of Concow wrote that he keeps canned goods and pantry items to live on for possible week-long power outages. Over years of power outages, Moak has gotten better tools for power outages. He says preparation can be costly and take time.
“Remember, you can’t do it all in one year,” he wrote.
According to the Red Cross, it’s important to store nutritious and familiar foods that are also targeted towards family members’ special diets and allergies. The nonprofit especially recommends foods that require no refrigeration, water or preparation. That means remembering to get a can opener and disposable utensils.
Passing the time
In some circumstances, power outages will last more than 24 hours. The first power outage Barbara Wabs of Los Molinos lived through lasted three to four days. Wabs recommends preparing something to keep the family entertained.
“Lots of board games or scrap booking stuff to keep kids busy … after the 1st day they are going to be antsy,” Wabs wrote to NSPR.
Others recommend watching movies or reading. Either way, don’t panic, residents said.
Checking in on neighbors
It’s important to check in on your community members during a power outage, said Cori Madrigal of the community of Cottonwood in Shasta County.
“Don't forget to check on your elderly neighbors. One could even be stuck in an electric recliner and can't get up and out!” Madrigal wrote to NSPR in a Facebook comment.
Disabled neighbors may especially need community support, said Disability Action Center executive director Carolyn Nava in an interview with NSPR.
“Power outages affect the entire community. For those who depend on equipment, or mechanisms that are power dependent for the health and safety, then it's an even more precarious situation,” Nava said.
Howard Goodman of Ragdump in Butte County said he learned through experience to stock up and become self reliant in case of a fire and power outage. One wildfire and power outage event stranded him in his house for a month. He said he relied on others for food and resources.
Experts warn power outages may become more frequent due to more extreme weather events and a worsening grid. Joan Casey, a professor at Columbia University researching the public health risks of power outages, told NSPR, it’s going to get worse before it gets better.
Casey’s research found that going through a power outage event made some communities more resilient to future power outage events. But, she said, power outages still bring public health risks like increased mortality and emergency room visits. Those harms need to be avoided.
“We need investment in updating the grid,” Casey said. “That's particularly true in California, where many of these lines are extremely old, can be above ground, and can be impacted readily by weather events and wildfires, and also can lead to the ignition of wildfires.”
State and local officials, Casey said, have a responsibility to reach to vulnerable groups in advance of power outages and keep the public informed ahead of time.
But on a more local level, Casey said, communities may consider buying into an alternative energy source like solar power. Casey thinks it might be worth the investment to create a power outage-resilient safe haven for especially vulnerable residents to visit during an outage.
“And that's going to become more and more affordable with a lot of what's going on with the IRA [The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022]. So I think there are big opportunities there,” Casey said.