The Onion: Officials to reduce wildfire risk by shutting off oxygen to residents

And in what sounds like it is from The Onion, the CEO of PG&E gives advice about refilling refrigerators after they had to be emptied during power shutoffs.

Fire Triangle
Fire Triangle

Satire from The Onion:


SAN FRANCISCO—With blazes engulfing Sonoma County and smoke-filled skies blanketing much of the Bay Area, officials in California announced Friday they would attempt to mitigate any further spread of wildfires with a mandatory shutoff of oxygen to thousands of the state’s residents. “In order to eliminate factors that could contribute to the fires’ growth, we will cut the flow of oxygen in high-risk areas throughout the northern part of the state,” California Public Utilities Commission president Marybel Batjer told reporters, explaining that the rolling “air-outs” would last 12 hours on average and residents would need to plan accordingly. “If each Californian can learn to make do without oxygen for just a day or two, we could avoid much of the devastation caused by wildfires. We understand this is a hardship, but it is simply too dangerous to allow open oxygen in fire-prone areas. Those requiring emergency supplies of air will be allowed to offset the shortage by cultivating hundreds of plants inside their home.” Batjer later confirmed that oxygen would continue flowing to all businesses deemed vital, including the headquarters of every major tech giant in or around Silicon Valley.


This satire is a takeoff on the fact that in recent weeks Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison cut power to millions of Californians over multiple days to prevent the companies’ dangerous and inadequately maintained infrastructure from starting more wildfires during strong winds. About 1,400 schools serving more than 490,000 students lost power for at least one day during power shut-offs between Oct. 24 and Nov. 1, according to Scott Roark, spokesperson for the California Department of Education.

Bill Johnson, the President and CEO of PG&E, did not win many friends during this October 31 exchange with Dan Noyes, a reporter for ABC7:

Noyes: “What do you say to people who just can’t afford to restock their fridges and are losing all this food they’ve had in their households after these shut offs?”

Johnson: “These events can be hard on people, really hard on people, particularly people who have struggles anyways and there are community-based things you can do, food banks, these kind of things. But for us, you know the main thing is we didn’t cause any fires, we didn’t, for these people we didn’t burn down any houses, the Kincade fire is still under investigation, I got that, but one of the things we did was give them the opportunity to actually refill their refrigerator ’cause their house is still there.”

The effects of shutting off the electricity rather than harden their infrastructure has far-reaching repercussions, including traffic lights not working, businesses having to close, difficulty in finding  functioning gas stations, air conditioning and heating unavailable, parents looking for child care when schools close, and many others.

Some cell phone systems do not have robust emergency power supplies, in fact some have none because the FCC does not require it. This can make the situation even worse for those without land lines who can’t call 911 for emergencies or receive evacuation notifications when endangered by a wildfire. It also makes it impossible for cell phones to receive earthquake warnings from the system that is being rolled out in California. In Marin County 57 percent of cell towers were down on October 28, for example.

Size of Maria Fire east of Ventura remapped at 9,412 acres

The fire started 13 minutes after SCE re-energized power lines near the point of origin

Map of the Maria Fire
Map of the Maria Fire. All evacuations have been lifted. The pink line and green lines are where evacuations have been lifted. Source: Ventura County at 6:20 a.m. PDT Nov. 2, 2019.

UPDATED at 6:35 p.m. PDT November 2, 2019

The Ventura County Fire Department announced at 2:39 p.m. Saturday that all evacuation orders on the Maria Fire have been lifted.

More accurate mapping determined that the fire has burned 9,412 acres, which is a decrease from the 10,720-acre figure released earlier.

The number of structures burned has remained at three. That has not been broken down as to the type, such as outbuildings, homes, or commercial structures.

Saturday morning there were still 1,200 personnel assigned to the fire.


UPDATED at 7:37 a.m. PDT November 2, 2019

Friday afternoon the Maria Fire east of Ventura, California grew by another 2,000 acres on the west and north sides. The Ventura County Fire Department said a total of 10,720 acres have burned.

As the fire moved north into the Santa Clara river bottom on Friday live views from cameras on helicopters showed several structures burning, some of which appeared to be affiliated with ranching or farming. Horses freed by ranch hands were running from the fire.

The UPI reports that the fire, which started near mountaintop communication sites, may have been related to re-energized power lines.

Southern California Edison said that though it’s not sure what caused the Maria Fire, the company did re-energize its power lines in the vicinity about 13 minutes before it sparked. The company had previously cut off power to the area amid strong winds.

(Scroll down to see a tweet that has a photo of the fire shortly after it started.)

SCE power lines caused the huge fire across the valley from the Maria Fire, the Thomas Fire that in December, 2017 blackened 230,500 acres and destroyed 1,063 structures (see the map below). Two people were killed directly by the Thomas fire, one firefighter and a civilian, and 21 were killed later by flooding and mud flows off the vegetation-free mountains. Over 8,500 firefighters were mobilized to fight it, which is the largest mobilization of firefighters for combating any wildfire in California history. The cost of suppressing the fire was over $200 million.

Drones over the fire Friday at 3:19 a.m. and 4:05 a.m. shut down the water dropping activities of two night-flying helicopters, the LA Times reported. According to @VCscanner, Air Attack 51 reported one of the drones at about 3,000 feet, resulting in all firefighting aircraft having to shut down.

The Red Flag Warning has been extended through 6 p.m. Saturday due to very dry air with humidity levels from 2 to 8 percent, recovering only to 8 to 18 percent overnight. Daytime highs on Saturday and Sunday in the fire area are expected to be between 77 and 85 degrees. Northeast winds will persist through Saturday, with the Ventura County Mountains and Valleys experiencing 10-25 mph winds and gusts of 25-35 mph. Weaker but still present offshore winds will be present Saturday night through Sunday.

Red Flag Warnings, November 2, 2019
Red Flag Warnings November 2, 2019 include the Maria Fire area. NWS

UPDATED at 12:15 p.m. PDT Nov. 1, 2019

The wind on the north side of the Maria Fire has shifted. Instead of coming from the northeast it is now from the east at 10 mph gusting to 20, which is pushing the fire toward the river bottom south of Santa Paula. Additional firefighting resources are being dispatched to deal with the increased threat to structures.

Video from television helicopters has showed structures burning.

The Ventura County Fire Department reported at 12:10 p.m. Friday that the fire had burned 8,700 acres.

map Maria Fire Ventura County California
The red dots represent heat on the Maria Fire detected by a satellite at 2:06 a.m. PDT November 1, 2019. Click to enlarge.

Continue reading “Size of Maria Fire east of Ventura remapped at 9,412 acres”

Extreme fire weather results in more potential power shutoffs in California

Electricity could be shut off for millions of people

Red Flag Warnings October 29, 2019
Red Flag Warnings for extreme fire danger October 29, 2019. NWS.

Red Flag Warnings in northern and southern California include forecasts for very strong winds and single digit humidity that will make wildfires difficult or impossible to suppress until, 1) the weather changes, or 2) the fire runs out of fuel.

Conditions in the southern part of the state will be critical, especially in the greater Los Angeles area which should expect 30 to 55 mph winds gusting at 75 to 85 with humidity of 3 to 8 percent.

Below is the National Weather Service forecast for Santa Clarita, near last week’s Tick Fire north of Los Angeles: Tuesday night, winds 41 to 46 mph gusting out of the northeast at 61 to 68. The relative humidity will drop to the single digits by noon on Wednesday.

NWS forecast wind Santa Clarita, CA
NWS forecast for the Santa Clarita, CA area, beginning October 29, 2019. The wind barbs point to the direction the wind will be FROM.

Below is information about this weather event from Jim Cantore of The Weather Channel Tuesday morning:

red flag conditions southern california wind humidity
Jim Cantore, The Weather Channel.

The three large utility companies could potentially shut off the power to millions of people in California beginning Tuesday. The maps below were collected from the web sites of the power companies at 8:30 a.m. PDT October 29 and show areas that could potentially be affected by power shutoffs. The information could change.

areas risk power shutoffs SDG&E
San Diego Gas & Electric’s communities at risk of power shutoffs October 29, 2019. SDG&E.
areas risk power shutoffs SCE
Southern California Edison’s areas at risk of power shutoffs October 29, 2019. SCE.
Pacific Gas & Electric's areas risk power shutoffs
Pacific Gas & Electric’s areas at risk of power shutoffs October 29, 2019. PG&E.

(Red Flag Warnings can be modified throughout the day as NWS offices around the country update and revise their weather forecasts.)

Powerline investigated as possible source of Saddle Ridge Fire

Above: 3-D map of the Saddle Ridge Fire at 12:27 a.m. PDT October 13, 2019.

Fire investigators are looking at a power line as a possible ignition point for the Saddle Ridge Fire that burned 7,965 acres and 21 structures on the north side of Los Angeles. (see map above) At least two residents of Sylmar said they first saw the fire at the base of a transmission tower. Los Angeles Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas said Friday night that he was aware of those reports, and, “We believe that witness, and someone else who said something similar.” The Southern California Edison power line had not been shut off during the Santa Ana wind event.

All of the evacuation orders have been lifted that earlier affected about 100,000 residents.

(To see all articles on Wildfire Today about the Saddle Ridge Fire, click here.)

The strong north to northeast Santa Ana wind event that caused the fire to spread seven miles, from Sylmar to Granda Hills and almost to Chatsworth, has come to a close. The area is now experiencing typical on shore flows, bringing higher humidity and lower temperatures.

One person died during the fire. Authorities said Aiman Elsabbagh, 54, suffered a heart attack while trying to protect his home with a garden hose and passed away later in a hospital.

Map Saddle Ridge Fire
Map of the Saddle Ridge Fire at 12:27 a.m. PDT October 13, 2019.

Update on fire-related power shutoffs in California

UPDATED at 12:22 p.m. PDT October 10, 2019

Recently updated information about Pacific Gas and Electric’s preemptive power shutoff for much of Northern California includes additional locations in the San Francisco Bay Area and the north coast near Eureka (see map above). This brings the total number of PG&E addresses affected to 800,000, which could translate to approximately two to four million residents.

PG&E power shutoffs California
PG&E power shutoffs in Northern California, October 10, 2019.

Below is a zoomed-in map showing the greater San Francisco Bay Area.

PG&E power shutoffs California
PG&E power shutoffs in the Bay Area of California, October 10, 2019.

According to PG&E they have been turning off the power during periods of high wildfire danger since 2013, never before at this magnitude.


San Diego Gas and Electric was one of the pioneers in turning off the power to their customers when the wind blows and has been doing it  for years.

“Moderate Santa Ana winds are expected to sweep through our region starting Thursday and peak on Friday morning, bringing elevated wildfire danger to the backcountry and the potential for Public Safety Power Shutoffs,” SDG&E said in a press release.

About  34,000 SDG&E customers have been notified their electricity may be turned off (see map below).

SDG&E turn off power wind
SDG&E says the areas in yellow could experience public safety power outages during the wind event that will hit San Diego County Thursday and Friday. (SDG&E map updated October 9, 2019.)

And in the Los Angeles area:

The fire danger in Northern California is expected to decrease on Friday but remain elevated in the south part  of the state.

Predicted fire weather for October 10, 2019
Predicted fire weather for Thursday October 10, 2019.
Predicted fire weather for October 11, 2019
Predicted fire weather for October 11, 2019.

What happens when a power company decides to turn off the electricity for millions of residents?

The preemptive power shutoff for 800,000 addresses by Pacific Gas and Electric in Northern California is directly affecting approximately two to four million residents. The power company took this action to prevent their feeble power line system from starting fires during this period of strong winds. Farther south in California, San Diego Gas and Electric has warned residents living at 30,000 addresses that their power could also be turned off this week.

The indirect effects of having no electricity expand to a much larger  population when you consider traffic lights not working, tunnels on highways being shut down, plus the closure of gas stations, schools, and businesses. At some point cellular telephone towers and infrastructure may exhaust their emergency power supply systems, not to mention the batteries in the public’s cell phones.

Firefighters’ communications could be hampered by the disabling of their radio repeaters on mountain tops. Notifying residents of approaching fires and conducting evacuations in order to save lives could be challenging.

All that is the assessment of someone hundreds of miles away. For the thoughts of a person much closer to what is actually happening on the ground, we turn to Rob Carlmark, a meteorologist for ABC10 in Sacramento, who is surrounded by areas affected by PG&E’s power shutoff. Here, with his permission, are samples of what he has been writing on his Twitter account, @rcarlmark:


10:25 a.m. October 9, 2019

So here is what’s happening on the ground in California for the fire weather story. It’s genuinely freaking everybody out. If we get ZERO fires out of this (small miracle) the power shut off will be remembered for a long time. #MorningBlend10

Rob Carlmark
Rob Carlmark photo.

Despite the pretty large media effort by PG&E to warn people of the power outages…many people we are talking to at closed gas stations had no idea. Turns out not everyone…especially in rural areas look at the internet all day. Some of these folks were BLINDSIDED. We have to take them at their word because they are far away from the windiest areas affecting lines or COULD affect lines. Many work far away, and fuel up often. If you are at a gas station…let’s face it you NEED gas and maybe can’t drive 15-20 miles away to get it…or wait in long lines to get gas. They also have an unexpected day off work…maybe cancelled school..kid/kids to pick up and figure out what to do for DAYS with no power. Of course the alternative is having power on…and a well known source for fires active.

This is a tough spot to be in for 100,000s of customers which likely includes million+total in actual population if you extrapolate for households etc.

They are not going to reimburse people for spoiled food since it was planned. If an outage was caused by an extreme event and weather they might…case by case basis.

Also remember a lot of these people just got hit with a non-renewal for home insurance and if they found someone…it costs drastically more. Also remember that many of these people are actively trying to move…sell their home…can’t find insurance for new buyer or are dropping their prices all the time. This is the APEX of stress in some of the most beautiful places you ever could live.

We need to add more places… the Bay area is about to find out today if one of the major tunnels…MAJOR…will have to shut down for power outages at noon. Traffic there is a true daily horror show…and if you find this out…at work you are going to freak.

We haven’t even talked about Southern California…they too will experience massive outage issues potentially…STRONGER winds and LOWER humidity.

WE HAVEN’T EVEN HAD A FIRE YET! If that happens…which the odds are fairly high…it immediately turns into a dangerous life-threatening event with little info, or ways to get info (no power…no gas).

Finally…peak wind will be middle of the night [Wednesday night/early Thursday]. It’s not just about power…there are DOZENS of ways fires start and any fluke accident could set up many communities for a dangerous moment.

If we can get through this…the power might not come back on for a few DAYS in some areas after the fact (no strong winds) while they inspect lines. fire or not this story will continue for many days more.


4:19 a.m. PDT October 10:

Update from what’s going on in California with this fire weather/power outage emergency. We are right in the thick of it and it’s not over yet.

We had a VERY close call in a town called Moraga near the Bay Area overnight. Fire broke out near a nice suburb surrounded by open land…a true urban/wildland interface situation. It was dicey, scary and in the middle of the night…gusts were 35mph+ nearby and evacuations were door to door with no cell service and power shut off.  By the hard work of firefighters and perhaps the advantage of having roads and access the fire is mostly contained and a nightmare scenario has been avoided…for now.

From what we can tell this is an area with a planned power outage and it’s a reminder that a fire can start form dozens of different ways…not just power arcs. We don’t know cause, but since the power was shut off there it’s worth exploring other causes

Supplies are running really low in power outage areas…water, flashlights, generators etc. have been in short supply like a true disaster emergency situation.

Easily the biggest complaint is “It’s not windy at my house…the power should be back on” Gusts near the dams/hydropower/transmission lines though are VERY strong up to 52 mph so upstream impacts are creating downstream confusion

Observed wind speeds in California
Observed wind speeds in California early Thursday morning. Rob Carlmark.

In short…it’s ongoing…people are on edge…every stoplight is a four way stop with traffic issues…people have NO idea when power is coming back…it’s a big deal that is getting bigger today.

I do see the weather changing tonight for many…less wind but still dry so there is an end to this in the weather world…but the power thing…it’s going to be some time.