At 8 p.m. on Monday night in Mammoth Lakes, the outside world had taken on an apocalyptic vibe. Immense black clouds over Mammoth Mountain were visible against the last hint of the sun and the darkness that blanketed the area was borderline impermeable. In Vons, shoppers scanned aisles with flashlights and whispered grocery lists to each other as store employees checked the plastic coverings on the refrigerator cases. Check out was cash-only, conducted in relative darkness while outside, the wind threatened to scatter any groceries not properly secured and traffic crawled along, unaided by stoplights.
Only a few lights were visible from the Twin Lakes overlook, creating the impression that the night sky had extended all the way down to Earth and blanketed the entire area, while the gusts screaming down off the mountains turned even walking and standing into harrowing endeavors. All in all, straight out of Billy Joel’s “Miami, 2017.”
At about this time, Jeff Carlson of Old Mammoth took a drive up to the Lakes Basin to check if anyone staying in the campgrounds was enjoying a campfire during the shortage.
“We know that any type of fire that’s going to wipe out Old Mammoth is going to come from the Lakes Basin. When he got to the Coldwater Campground, Carlson found not one but six campfires burning in the chilly night.
“The first campground on the left, I saw these embers flying all over the place,” said Carlson. The individual responsible claimed that they hadn’t been told about the fire hazard by the host or anyone else.
Monday was the first glimpse at the future of a fire-threatened rural area such as ours, and the reality that it painted was one of uncertainty and frustration.
At approximately 1 p.m. on Monday afternoon, Southern California Edison initiated a Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) that affected 14,524 customers in Mono and Inyo Counties. The shutoff lasted more than twelve hours, even stretching late into the day on Tuesday for June Lake and Bridgeport. The cause of this shut-off? An increased fire risk due to high wind velocity throughout the region.
According to Nate Greenberg, Mono County Information Technology (IT) Director, the first rumblings of an impending shutoff appeared on Friday of the previous week, when Greenberg and and reps from SCE began eyeing two circuits in Mono County for a potential shutoff. At that time, there was no indication that the forecasted winds would impact other circuits throughout the county.
On Monday morning, as Greenberg explained, “We started a conversation about those [circuits] just to sort of track where they were at … we altered those forecasted winds that actually hit us, and at that point in time, was basically informed that not only were those two circuits remaining on the list, but there about twenty-eight others that were being added.” That left only five potentially unaffected SCE circuits throughout the entire county.
That forecast came in at about 11 a.m. and was dispersed to officials throughout the county, who discussed next steps, like setting up an Emergency Operation Center. “We ultimately decided to … continue to monitor things,” said Greenberg. Just before 1p.m., word came down that a widespread shutoff was imminent at which time Greenberg and county officials “started to scramble and make sure that we were ready to react.”
Although Suite Z in Minaret Mall and county data centers retained power, Greenberg noted that there were some power issues “primarily with the generator in dispatch” which impacted government response and outreach regarding the shutoff. County offices in the Sierra Center Mall had to be closed as the fire alarm system lost power.
Some county offices in Bridgeport were without power Tuesday as well, meaning that many employees in those offices were working out of Memorial Hall. Mono County Sheriff Ingrid Braun reported that the generator powering the county jail had lost power for a few minutes but it came back online soon and the sheriff’s department was able to initiate Code-Red messaging. Braun also reported that 911 services remained powered throughout the shutoff, with a brief switch to Inyo County to ensure “continuity of service.”
Cal Rossi, Regional Representative for SCE, spoke about the shutoff at the Mono County Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday morning. Reading off of what amounted to a script, Rossi assured the supervisors and everyone else in attendance that “public safety is our priority.”
Rossi reported that SCE “did have vegetation in our lines and so we’ll never know if we prevented a fire but we’ll sure know if one is caused … and so out of a preponderance of caution, we did make the decision [to shut off the power].
Rossi also responded to those frustrated by the PSPS, stating “In response to restoring power, we’re working to do that as conditions permit and crews have inspected the lines to confirm that it is safe to re-energize. And I think that that point is lost on a lot of our customers, that as soon as the wind dies down, there’s an expectation that the power may come up immediately.”
Rossi repeatedly fell back on the the public’s responsibility to stay prepared and informed. “There is a role for the public to make sure they’re on our communications list,” said Rossi.
Supervisor Fred Stump noted the significance of the timing of the event, stating “I’m grateful this happened because it wasn’t freezing and it wasn’t in the middle of a high tourist weekend”. He also said, “For all the effort that has gone into it … I think we still need to do more”.
According to the Weather Channel’s website, temperatures dipped below freezing early Tuesday morning.
Supervisor Stacy Corless pushed Rossi on the subject of communication, citing issues with the SCE website and phone line. “PSPS information didn’t seem to be staying up-to-date”, said Corless.
Supervisor Jennifer Kreitz commented on public perception noting that there’s “a sense that maybe SCE had carte blanche ability to turn off the power,” and stressed the importance of “building trust with the community so that they feel the right decisions are being made.”
“People didn’t know this was coming in Mammoth”, said Kreitz.
SCE brought in a Community Outreach Vehicle to assist customers with signing up for notifications as well as providing customers with snacks and a charging station, parking it in the back of the Minaret Mall parking lot across from Union Bank.
The Sheet was able to speak with an SCE representative in Alhambra, CA after being passed off to Rossi and then onto the media hotline.
Robert Villegas, spokesman for SCE, stated, “We try to provide as much advance notice as we can. Typically we aim for 24 hours.” But in this case, “we ended up having very short notice provided to customers,” although Villegas noted that SCE is trying to improve its response system.
When asked about how SCE’s decision-making was informed by lawsuits against it and other California power companies, Villegas offered that “Even though we don’t want to turn off the power … what the fires have shown is that the scope and scale of these fires has grown truly catastrophic.”
Scope and scale is apparently important to SCE: that phrase came up no less than four times.
Villegas also addressed concerns that communications in Mono County, where a quarter of the population speaks a language other than English at home, may not be universally effective. Villegas advised customers whose primary language is not English to take advantage of their phone line.
*Hmm. Are they reading this?
The extent to which local businesses were affected isn’t known but there may be tough times ahead. Dave Easterby of State Farm Insurance noted that while a business insurance policy can cover power outages, “it’s hard to quantity what you lost.” When taking into account things such a spoiled food or loss of business, Easterby stated that one must ask “Is it worth the deductible?”
The breakdown in communication from SCE and county officials played a part in the public’s response to the shutoff; the infrastructure simply wasn’t able to handle what was needed and as a result, the community was left scratching their heads.
In public comment at Mammoth Town Council Wednesday, Eric Wasserman described the outage and general lack of communication as amounting to “economic suicide.”
“If this happens during Christmas week … “
To wit, Easterby presented the Sheet with a message from SCE about an imminent power outage. The message was received at 4:54 p.m., nearly four hours after SCE turned the power off.
In terms of telecommunications, Suddenlink services went down as did AT&T, while Verizon stayed operational, albeit with slowdowns as network usage increased throughout the day.