Fifteen days after a winter storm hit the Sierra Nevada Foothills, power and communication outages persist, residents are waiting on propane deliveries or looking for firewood, all while trying to deal with damaged and down trees. Add to that list spoiled food, unplanned expenses, lost income – among a pandemic.

Hotwash is a debrief after an incident (or an exercise,) meant to capture first impressions and answer some basic questions. [source: FEMA]

What happened?
What was supposed to happen?
Why is there a difference?
What is the effect of the difference?
What should be learned from this?
What improvements need to be implemented?

The “what happened” list is quite long, you’ll find it at the end of this story.

What was supposed to happen?

Foothill residents are familiar with power outages. Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS) designed to prevent wildfires during extremely high fire danger days, are a regular occurrence by now. During the PSPS events, utilities preposition resources, both people and materials, to shorten outage times.

Some telecom companies install generators at neighborhood terminals to keep landlines and cell towers working once utility power goes down. It allows residents to report emergencies, be they medical emergencies, law enforcement issues or fires.

This time, despite ample warnings by the National Weather Service, no prepositioning took place as far as we were able to ascertain. Telecom companies have yet to communicate outage magnitudes and precise restoration times. No additional resources were staged by PG&E ahead of the storm, leaving local crews to deal with an unprecedented situation before additional help finally arrived.

Some residents and visitors did not adequately prepare for the event. With major highways and local roads shut down, accidents and stranded motorists compounded the chaos on roadways. Long lines at the sole open gas station in Nevada City, few grocery stores open due to the power outages, made it difficult for those who realized the severity of the storm too late.

Why is there a difference?

We’re unable to precisely ascertain why there was no prepositioning of resources by the utility companies, or why no additional contract resources were on standby to support county public works. The magnitude of damage caused by the two storm waves appears to have been unanticipated.

What is the effect of the difference?

It is fair to assume that more resources available immediately would have shortened the impact of the storm on residents.

What should be learned from this? What improvements need to be implemented?

Short term (three to five day) weather forecasts have a high accuracy. PG&E has their own weather center, CalOES and local agencies are briefed by the National Weather Service in Sacramento. Residents can access weather forecasts from multiple agencies and media outlets. Using these forecasts agencies, corporations and residents need to increase preparations for the next event.

Clear communication of damages and existing dangers needs improving. Utilities need to reach out to customers, agencies and media with regular updates that go beyond generic “non-update” updates.

Local government agencies should maintain a focus on residents when delivering updates.

Media needs to communicate ahead of time when and how we will deliver updates. Providing an update schedule helps residents to conserve limited battery power and bandwidth.

Vulnerable populations need more attention. While a mobile home park counts as one PG&E customer, due to having a master meter, several hundred residents are affected by any outage. Medical baseline customers were unable to recharge their devices and non-profits were struggling to provide services.

Telecom companies need to acknowledge the service they provide is often the only service available in a given area. Land lines are still the only method of communication in large areas of the county, given the lack of cell tower coverage. The absence of any information on repair progress, 15 days into an incident, is untenable.

Propane companies, while applying for waivers (as they should) are reportedly charging a surcharge for guaranteed deliveries. The additional financial strain on residents should be absorbed by an emergency funding request to the state or federal government.

Waste Management provided four containers for spoiled food, but did not haul the full containers over the weekend. More containers in more locations are needed given that service was interrupted or spotty for two weeks. The same applies to recycling, no containers are available at this time.

The magnitude of down and damaged trees is largely beyond the capacity of homeowners to deal with. We received close to 2,000 reader reports that list trees down on their property.

Restoring utility power and communications, completing propane deliveries, and providing additional firewood and food are the most pressing issues. Setting up and funding a green waste program to help property owners remove the down and damaged trees and green debris before the start of fire season should be next on the list.

We want to thank all the crews and staff of county departments, utility corporations, local businesses, non-profits and all residents who stepped up and provided help during this emergency.

What happened?

For over a week, forecasts from the National Weather Service alerted to a strong winter storm. Low snow levels, gusty winds and hazardous mountain travel conditions were messaged leading up to the holiday weekend. On Sunday night, snow started falling at the lower elevations. The gusty winds and very wet, heavy snow quickly lead to power outage reports and blocked roads.

On Monday, December 27th, we posted “30,404 PG&E customers in western Nevada County are out of power. I-80, US 50, Hwys 49 and 20 are shut down at the higher elevations, many county and city roads are impassable, either because of snow or trees and debris.”

At the same time, communications went down. From landlines to cell towers, even radio stations went off the air as telecom companies experienced the same outages than the power utility.

Hardest hit by the storm were Nevada, Placer, El Dorado and Sierra counties, with the easternmost portion of Yuba County (Camptonville) also being cut off from power and roads.

Road crews and first responders, coordinated by the local Emergency Operations Center (EOC) were working throughout the night, but the sheer volume of trees down with power and communication lines entangled made for slow going.

Local government offices were closed, Waste Management, public transit shut down. Food banks canceled distributions due to impassable roads, courthouses remained shuttered.

Warming centers and emergency shelters were stood up by the EOC. The warming center at the Helling Library ran on a generator provided by Sacramento County, thanks to the mutual aid request following Nevada County’s state of emergency proclamation issued on December 27 (adopted by the Board of Supervisors on Dec. 30th.)

On December 28th, the focus was on opening roads and evacuating residents in acute distress to family members or hotels.

In the morning hours of Dec. 29th, the power outage situation was as follows:

  • Nevada County: 150 outages affecting 20,847 customers. Some of the planned restorations late yesterday did not take place due to more extensive damage and additional snow fall.
  • El Dorado County: 117 outages affecting 20,589 customers.
  • Placer County: 83 outages affecting 9,139 customers
  • Sierra County: 9 outages affecting 619 customers.
  • Yuba County: 14 outages affecting 465 customers.

Also on the 29th, additional low-elevation snowfall compounded the existing hardships. Snow fell as low as Lake of the Pines and Lake Wildwood. 169 outages in Nevada County affected 32,048 customers. PG&E stated: “we are bringing in crews and equipment from other areas to support the Sierra Division.” At the time, a third of all PG&E outages throughout California (94,948 total customers affected) were in Nevada County.

Additional overnight shelters were set up by Nevada County, as well as warming centers. With communication lines down and only sporadic cell service for some, getting information remained a challenge. YubaNet created a report form where our readers listed damages. We shared the data with the local EOC who combined it with reports from first responders, 211 calls and utility reports.

On December 30th, the power outages were as follows:

Nevada County: 177 outages affecting 19,714 customers
El Dorado County: 115 outages affecting 19,358 customers
Placer County: 107 outages affecting 9,141 customers
Plumas County: 12 outages affecting 1,096 customers
Sierra County: 13 outages affecting 994 customers
Butte County: 36 outages affecting 553 customers
Yuba County: 18 outages affecting 491 customers

California Governor Newsom declared a state of emergency in Alameda, Amador, Calaveras, El Dorado, Humboldt, Lake, Los Angeles, Marin, Monterey, Napa, Nevada, Orange, Placer, Sacramento, San Bernardino, San Luis Obispo, San Mateo, Santa Cruz, Sierra, and Yuba counties due to these winter storms.

New Year’s Eve still had 38,940 PG&E customers without power in six counties, 16,366 were in Nevada County. Search & Rescue volunteers joined public works, first responders and utility crews to check roads and report hazards.

New Year’s Day brought clear skies, allowing for the use of helicopters to assess damage to power lines. 15,245 PG&E customers in Nevada County remained without power.

Several residents of mobile home parks (each mobile home park counts as one customer for the utility no matter how many people live in the park) reached out and described their situation as dire via our reporting form. Propane deliveries, or the lack thereof, became a pressing problem. The freezing temperatures forecast did materialize, compounding problems for residents. Nevada County was standing up firewood distribution sites, hired local contractors to help with road clearing both on public and private roads. No updates from telecom companies.

On January 2nd, all county roads were reported open. 13,739 PG&E customers in Nevada County remained out of power, one week after the beginning of the storm. Firewood and food distribution locations were set up, with warming centers and overnight shelters ongoing. Readers described their situation unable to get out of homes blocked by down trees and power lines, no heat, and no way to call 911 in case of an emergency.

Monday, January 3rd started with 13,519 PG&E customers in Nevada County without power. In the evening a YubaNet webinar, broadcast live on local radio stations, provided residents one of the first comprehensive updates.

January 4th started out with 10,919 PG&E customers in Nevada County without power. PG&E provided the first detailed damage report: “In Nevada County alone, we have identified more than 1,214 instances of damage. That includes:

  • 307 power poles
  • 580 locations where the conductor or the line needs repair
  • 171 crossarms
  • 70 transformers”

California National Guard Hand Crew CNA 23 under the direction of CAL FIRE was clearing trees to allow for access of repair trucks and propane deliveries. Nevada County’s EOC was working with propane companies to obtain waivers for regulations in order to extend delivery hours. In the evening, PG&E committed to have all outages restored by January 11th, with a majority of customers restored before the deadline.

On January 5th, 10,509 PG&E customers in Nevada County remained without power. PG&E’s Deputy IC provided an update to YubaNet in the evening

On January 6th, 8,599 PG&E customers in Nevada County remained without power. Nevada County EOC set up a local laundry and shower facility at the Rood Center.

On January 7th, 5,947 PG&E customers in Nevada County remained without power.

January 8th: 4,163 PG&E customers in Nevada County remained without power.

January 9th: 2,599 PG&E customers in Nevada County remained without power.

January 10th: 2,862 PG&E customers in Nevada County remain without power on Day 15 at publication time.