West Marin strains under power outage

10/30/2019

West Marin was not immune to the shutoff that left millions in California without power this week. 

Successive blackouts orchestrated by the Pacific Gas and Electric company began last Saturday evening as a preemptive measure in response to projected high winds and low humidity, affecting 99 percent of Marin residents and 38 counties statewide. 

Power was restored in parts of Marin beginning Tuesday evening, though a red flag warning persisted. 

With smoke from the Kincade Fire burning in Sonoma County choking Bay Area air, the threat of wildfire was palpable. Yesterday, that fire was approaching 77,000 acres and was 30 percent contained. 

On the coast, residents struggled with a host of inconveniences, making do with no electricity, no gas for miles and in many cases without internet or cellular service. 

Operating with or without generators, some local restaurants and businesses did their best to keep normal hours, keeping the lights low or turned off, freezers closed and accepting only cash. Several locations—the Bolinas fire station, the San Geronimo Valley Community Center and West Marin School—provided power strips for community members to recharge devices during the day, and some organized meals, including spaghetti dinners in Bolinas and Stinson Beach.  

“It’s a stretch,” said Colleen Hicks, a Bolinas resident who was charging her cell phone at the fire station on Tuesday morning. “It’s pretty cold at night, though I have a headlamp now and that makes things better—now I can read. Keeping your food cold is probably the hardest part. Maybe this is the new normal, and so I’m just thinking about what I can do to be better prepared. I’ve been reaching out to neighbors, people with any kind of medical problem, because that’s who I’m most worried about.”

George Krakauer, the Bolinas fire chief, said his department has two small generators to provide to those with special medical needs; despite a spike in calls from that population over the past week, there were no serious emergencies.

The Marin County Fire Department and all volunteer stations remained on high alert. Bret McTigue, a spokesman for Marin County Fire, said that despite the 93 county fire personnel deployed to the Kincade Fire, Marin continued to have more resources than typical, thanks to staff working overtime with funding from the state’s office of emergency services and the state’s department of forestry and fire protection.   

Those agencies funded the staffing of an additional five wildland fire engines—bringing the total to 12—typically held on reserve across the county’s fire stations. There were extra chief officers and dispatchers and an additional dozer stationed in Woodacre provided by the Marin Municipal Water District.

The county’s emergency operations center served as headquarters for a joint county response, with around 50 representatives from county departments coordinating with state resources and local disaster councils to release updated information to the public, provide logistical support to shelters and charging stations, and address any problems with infrastructure.

An evacuation facility set up at the fairgrounds served nearly 1,000 people fleeing Sonoma County at the height of the rush earlier this week, Mr. McTigue said.  

The predicted high winds materialized: the National Weather Service clocked a gust of 96 miles per hour in the Mayacamas Mountains northeast of Healdsburg last Sunday. Continued peaking winds have troubled firefighters throughout the state this week, as more fires erupt in Southern California. 

In West Marin, conditions were less severe. A station at middle peak on Mount Tamalpais operated by the National Weather Service showed a peak of wind gusts at 44 miles per hour last Sunday morning; relative humidity was recorded at 20 percent at that time.

One of the biggest concerns, Mr. McTigue said, was that many of the county’s cell towers were down, compromising the county’s ability to reach residents with emergency alerts. 

As of Monday, the Federal Communications Commission reported that over half of the cell sites in the county were out of commission. Though only 32 of California’s 58 counties provide information to the commission’s disaster information reporting system, Marin’s percentage of downed cell sites far exceeded other counties in the report; Calavaras County came in second at 39 percent, and Sonoma County third, at 27 percent.

The vast majority of sites statewide were inoperable because of the power outage, rather than due to wind damage; carriers are not required to provide back-up power. 

In Marin, 134 sites were down due to the outage, while nine were not functioning due to damage. 

Kevin Daniels, the owner of Horizon Cable—which services 1,400 customers throughout West Marin—said his cell sites do have backup power, but that much of that infrastructure is rarely used. This week it failed, cutting internet and landlines for many of his customers. “We don’t use those generators very often, so we had issues with them, and once they did work, we ran into other problems; we lost a server.” 

By Tuesday, he had restored power in Point Reyes, especially to important sites such as the Palace Market and the pharmacy, but not elsewhere.   

Mr. McTigue said that redundancy remains the county’s top strategy. In the case of an evacuation, calls would go out to landlines, Nixle and Alert Marin would send out text messages and emails, Amber Alerts would hit cell phones, and law enforcement and emergency responders would hit the streets to make house calls.

That was a reality for many residents in Sonoma County this week.

Kirsten DeBoer, who lives just outside Sebastopol, headed south this week in the middle of the night after receiving an emergency evacuation notice. Leaving her house at 4 a.m., she headed for friends in Stinson Beach.

“I had food packed and ready to go in the fridge, but when it came down to it, I even forgot my jacket, barely remembered to grab my to-go bag, and rushed off to get my kids at their dad’s house,” she told the Light. 

After the evacuation order in her area was lifted, she stayed in Marin to avoid the atrocious air quality. Standing outside the Bolinas Book Exchange on Tuesday, she said she had made one trip into San Francisco to fill up her gas tank but otherwise planned to stay in the area. 

Ms. DeBoer remained positive. “Before I left, the grocery stores were mayhem, the lines at the gas station hours-long, but everyone is softer, their hearts more open. Everyone is so polite, and we all start to cry when we see a firefighter,” she said.

Many other evacuees passed right through Marin, said Joseph Gallardo, a fire captain in Point Reyes Station. Staffers there fielded a lot of calls and visits from the public, doing their best to direct people to facilities—including to the nearest open gas station, which on Monday was in Petaluma. 

Both gas stations in Point Reyes and Bolinas stopped servicing after the power went out, as neither had a back-up generator; no gas stations were open in the county by Monday.

For many in Marin, the outage and the fire threat were reminders to be prepared for anything.

“I’m just as ill-prepared as I was during the last shutoff, and so this is really a wakeup call,” Bolinas resident Melinda Stone said. “Hopefully it just takes two times. With such a strong community, we have everything we need to be off the grid.”

Ms. Stone reported a discovery among friends at Commonweal Garden that a Prius works well as an inverter, and one was jury-rigged to serve as a generator for the property. 

Still, Ms. Stone said, at her home, where water comes from a well, things got dire: the bathtub she had filled with water had about an inch left on Tuesday. 

Despite dwindling resources, West Marin business owners did their best to continue to provide support for residents. James Finch, the co-owner of Bolinas Bay Hardware and Mercantile, described a rush on supplies beginning Friday, when the utility first sent out an alert.

“We thought we were prepared after the last shutoff, but we cleared out of batteries the first day, and now we are out of flashlights, fuel for oil lamps—anything related to light,” he said.

Nevertheless, the business quickly adapted. Mr. Finch drove to Sacramento first thing last Saturday morning to buy generators for other local businesses and several residents who needed them for medical equipment; helping people think through how to safely operate a generator and store gasoline were part of his effort. With backup generators, the hardware store is prepared to stay open during an extended blackout.

For other businesses with high electricity needs, generators are a serious investment. Edmond Hattar, whose family owns the Bolinas Market, estimates the store has lost around $45,000 between the last planned power shutoff and this week’s, due to losses in food products and business. As a precaution after the last blackout, he cut down on orders for some cold-sensitive food products such as meat, but the second event still caught him off guard. 

The store opened for several hours each morning this week—but also gave away food before it spoiled. “First we gave away the ice cream,” Mr. Hattar said.

Looking ahead, he was worried about Thanksgiving, when the store typically supplies more than 50 turkeys. “That’s a big order to make, but right now we have no guarantees,” he said. “This has hurt us [financially], but then we have this possibly causing a loss of what is a really important tradition.”

The majority of the businesses in Point Reyes Station were closed during the outage, though the Palace Market kept its doors open with normal hours. The store’s manager, Juan Loza, reported the ice was gone by 2 p.m. on Monday. “Everyone is very anxious,” he said of customers.

Point Reyes Building Supply kept normal hours, but was unheated and without popcorn. By Monday, the store was out of batteries, coolers, propane cannisters, lanterns and camping stoves. Kaylin Romo, an employee, said there had been mostly out-of-towners in the store, some from Sonoma County. 

West Marin Pharmacy kept its doors open with a small generator, but could not process prescriptions with the internet down. Owner Zsuzsanna Biran said she has encouraged locals for years to always keep at least a week’s supply of their medications, and she believes her encouragement paid off; in other cases, she filled medications for evacuees just to get them by for a few days. 

Leona’s, a gallery and gift shop, stayed open without any power at certain times during the week; co-owner Rachel Delffs said business was very slow but she opened the door whenever there was a rush in town. 

Down at the Old Western Saloon, the doors closed for the second time in history; the first instance was 28 years ago, when there was a small fire in the basement. 

Food facilities during the outage ran into trouble with the county’s health department, which sent out inspectors on Monday and Tuesday to investigate conditions. Rebecca Ng, the deputy director of environmental health, said the department had not issued violations but rather asked businesses to close their doors over issues like proper refrigeration, hot water for employee hand washing, and for other reasons.  

The pace of life changed for everybody over the past week, including for staff at the Point Reyes Light. The business had newly purchased a generator and managed to connect to a neighbor’s internet, but the newspaper's printer, located in Healdsburg, was evacuated. 

The publisher scrambled to find an alternate printer and, with sources unreachable and planned stories crumbling as meetings were canceled, reporters set out for the streets.