Rural California Residents Confront Growing Risks From Extreme Weather

Some residents of Alta Sierra, Calif. were without power for 17 days following a large snowstorm: “Between the shutoffs in the summer and now in the winter it’s pretty unbearable”

Storm, Photo-Commission

1/18/2022 6:15:00 AM

Some residents of Alta Sierra, Calif. were without power for 17 days following a large snowstorm: “Between the shutoffs in the summer and now in the winter it’s pretty unbearable”

A huge snowstorm knocked down power lines, leaving a community that has in the summer coped with wildfire-related shut-offs now during the winter without electricity for more than two weeks.

Alta Sierra, located 60 miles northeast of Sacramento, generally only gets a few inches of snow each winter. But on Dec. 27, snow piled up to 3 feet high and knocked an estimated 2,000 trees onto power lines, causing blackouts for some 200,000 customers of

Officials with California’s largest utility said they restored power to about half those customers within the first 24 hours. It took weeks to restore the rest because of issues including snow-blocked roads and toppled poles and lines on many streets.

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| Photographs by Max Whittaker for The Wall Street Journal Jan. 17, 2022 10:00 am ET ALTA SIERRA, Calif.—The lights have turned back on in this community in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, more than two weeks after a large snowstorm knocked out power in the longest blackout anyone here can remember. Alta Sierra, located 60 miles northeast of Sacramento, generally only gets a few inches of snow each winter. But on Dec. 27, snow piled up to 3 feet high and knocked an estimated 2,000 trees onto power lines, causing blackouts for some 200,000 customers of Corp. across a four-county area. Officials with California’s largest utility said they restored power to about half those customers within the first 24 hours. It took weeks to restore the rest because of issues including snow-blocked roads and toppled poles and lines on many streets. U.S. electricity customers experienced an average of about eight hours of power interruptions in 2020, compared with four in 2016, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Much of the difference stems from events such as hurricanes, wildfires and snowstorms, the government agency said. Federal scientists and other researchers say such events are happening more frequently due to climate change. “Generally speaking, we are in an era of amplified extreme events in terms of cost, frequency and diversity,” said Adam Smith, a climatologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Liz Shultz’s garage was damaged by a fallen tree; her home was heated only by a wood stove during 17 days without power. In California, the power disruptions have become particularly acute in the Sierra Nevada foothills where many people have moved in recent years to escape the high housing costs of coastal cities like San Francisco. Alta Sierra resident Liz Shultz, 70 years old, and her husband, Dale Brevoort, 80, spent much of the 17 days they were without power bundled in a jacket trying to stay warm in a home heated only by a wood stove. “I can start swearing like a sailor or crying like a baby,” Ms. Shultz said Wednesday as she looked forward to electricity returning, which it did hours later. In addition to blackouts caused by snowstorms, PG&E has relied heavily on pre-emptive shut-offs of power in heavily wooded areas since its equipment sparked a series of deadly wildfires in 2017 and 2018, One of the hardest-hit areas has been Nevada County, where Alta Sierra is located. In 2020, PG&E cut power in the area when a forecast of high winds heightened the fire risk. With multiple shut-offs like that since, many residents of Alta Sierra—a loose collection of forested subdivisions totaling about 7,000 population—bought portable generators to try to ride out the blackouts. Alta Sierra, Calif., located 60 miles northeast of Sacramento, was hit by an unusually severe late-December snowstorm. The storm knocked down thousands of trees in a four-county area, hampering efforts to restore power. PG&E said it took weeks to restore service because of issues including snow-blocked roads and toppled poles and lines on many streets. But Anna Wolf said it takes so much gasoline to run her generator that she and her husband turned it on only for a few hours each of the 10 days they had no power—at a total cost of about $1,000. Other generators run on propane, and residents say that was in short supply because of the high demand. “I hope they figure out something because between the shut-offs in the summer and now in the winter, it’s pretty unbearable,” said Ms. Wolf, 45, a nurse who in 2017 returned from Florida to the community in which she grew up. Some residents and officials have called for PG&E to take steps to better prepare for extreme weather events, including putting electric lines underground. “The fact that PG&E hasn’t prepared for global warming is appalling,” said Patrick Johnson, a 45 year-old professional puppeteer. PG&E officials say they prune or cut more than one million trees annually to maintain clearance from power lines and are evaluating where undergrounding equipment can best work after breaking ground on one such project, with plans for two more next summer. “In the case of winter storms, we are continuously innovating to improve the accuracy of our outage prediction models and finding ways to restore power more quickly and effectively in the event of an outage,” said PG&E spokeswoman Lynsey Paulo. Residents of Alta Sierra said they were alerted to the possibility of blackouts on the morning of Dec. 27 amid the holiday period’s heaviest snow. “Trees started snapping and transformers started to blow,” Ms. Wolf said. “It felt a little apocalyptic.” Rudy Thompson, 109 years old, had to leave his home for two weeks after losing power and heat. A nearby neighbor, 109-year-old Rudy Thompson, huddled beneath a sleeping bag without power the next night as his 75-year-old son, Gary, fed logs into a fireplace and ran a space heater off a generator. “Dad’s house had gotten very cold and dad was very uncomfortable,” said the younger Mr. Thompson, who ended up finding shelter for his father, a World War II veteran, elsewhere. Last Wednesday, a day after power was finally restored, the father and son returned to the home, and the elder Mr. Thompson settled into his easy chair. “We’ve had deeper snows, but it wasn’t as wet,” said Rudy, who has lived there since 1978. Local officials say residents living in isolated places like Alta Sierra can’t rely entirely on authorities and need to prepare themselves for power outages and extreme weather by purchasing generators, trimming vegetation to lessen the risk of wildfires, and having essential belongings ready for evacuations. SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS What do residents and elected leaders need to do to prepare for more extreme weather patterns? Join the conversation below. “The biggest thing is everybody doesn’t take this and move on,” said Alex Gammelgard, police chief of nearby Grass Valley, Calif., and an Alta Sierra resident. “Remember it, and prepare for future events.” Write to