Safety.com’s Guide to Staying Safe During California’s Power Shutdowns

Because of California’s ongoing wildfires, the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) recently announced that it would implement a public safety power shut-off (PSPS) that could affect up to 89,000 customers across 16 California counties. According to a press release issued by the electric company, “This PSPS event is based on forecasts of widespread, severely dry conditions and strong, gusty winds.”

While planned power shut-offs are important wildfire safety tools, blackouts can leave residents feeling unsafe. Without the right preparation, losing power can throw our most basic human needs into disarray. The best way to combat that feeling of insecurity when a power outage rolls around? Plan ahead.

Cover Your Basic Needs First  

Planning ahead to cover your most basic needs — food, water and shelter — should be your first priority.

Determine the best place to take shelter 

Depending on where you are located, the weather and resources you have available, staying home may or may not be your best bet during the power shutdowns. 

PG&E is operating open-air community resource centers (CRCs) that follow social distancing guidelines in affected areas. These centers are open during the day and can provide restrooms, charging stations, snacks and water. There may also be indoor centers available for those who need access to air conditioning during hot days. If you can’t access the CRC information online, affected Californians can dial 211 to locate cooling areas during outages. 

Keep your food from spoiling 

When a public safety power outage occurs, PG&E usually provides some amount of notice. When this happens, it’s a good idea to take stock of the food you have available. 

Brett Joerger, CEO of California solar-energy provider Westhaven Power, advises, “Avoid opening and closing fridges and freezers to keep the cold air in and [prevent] food from spoiling.” How long your food will stay safe in your fridge or freezer will depend on the fridge type and the temperature when the power shuts off. Regardless, your best bet to save refrigerated items is to keep the doors shut. 

If you can’t go without perishables or need access to refrigerated items, like certain medications, stored breast milk or other necessities, you could also prepare a cooler with bagged ice to store essential perishables during a blackout. 

“Additionally, be sure to have non-perishable food on hand,” he says. Just remember that any non-perishables you stock for a power outage should be able to be consumed in one sitting or shelf stable. Canned vegetables or beans are fine out of the can, but storing leftovers can cause a problem. Remember, you may not be able to reliably cook either, so stick to basics: cereal, granola bars, nuts and shelf-stable fruit are all good options. 

Maintain access to water 

When possible, have a stock of water on hand. It may be hard to find bottled water after a planned outage is announced, but it’s a good emergency staple to keep stocked when water is available. A portable filter can be another good option to keep drinking water accessible to you and your family. 

A little bit of planning can go a long way in helping you feel and stay safe. Mark Cerney, Founder of the emergency contact nonprofit NOKR.org, advises, “Anybody who is in the rolling blackouts area should have a ‘go bag’ with basic essentials they need for 48 hours, which would include any type of medications needed, water, snacks and a portable radio.”

Have Power Backups Prepared

Think about all of the things you use daily with power. How will you continue to function without them? Alternatives to regular electricity make all the difference in keeping you safe and connected during a blackout. Here are some ideas to keep the power on differently than when your electricity is working. 

Batteries and power banks

Visibility and communications should be at the top of your list for staying safe during a blackout. According to Joerger, “Residents should have enough battery-powered flashlights and chargers to get them through the shut-off.” Flashlights are an important tool to help you move around your home in the dark, so you don’t trip and fall. Make sure the batteries are full and keep extras on hand as a backup. 

Portable chargers and power banks are the other must-haves for a blackout. You can conserve your cell phone or other electronic devices’ battery by avoiding scrolling, enabling power-saving mode, closing applications and reducing the screen brightness. But even after taking all of those steps, you could run out of juice. Keeping your phone powered on is essential so you can make and receive emergency calls during the blackout period, so purchasing a reliable power bank to have on hand is worth considering.

Remember that you may not be able to watch the news like usual on cable or streaming when the power goes out. With Wi-Fi and cable down during an outage, it’s important to maintain a connection to the outside world so you can stay up to date. A battery-powered radio gives you a line to the outside world so you can stay informed. 

Energy system alternatives 

If you live in an area that’s susceptible to blackouts because of wildfires, planning ahead for a generator is a wise choice. Waitlists for generators can be long, especially once wildfire season has already hit, but once installed, it provides comfort and peace of mind. 

You might also consider solar power as an alternative if you don’t have it already. Joerger mentions that added home battery storage on solar energy systems can be especially appealing to families during planned power shutdowns. 

Organize Personal Information

If you’re in a fire zone during the planned blackout, Cerney advises another level of preparation to protect yourself. You should add important documents to your go bag that would be hard to replace if destroyed. Things like passports, birth certificates and insurance and bank records are good to keep on your person if you have to evacuate. 

“Make sure [you] register [your] emergency contacts and medical concerns at NOKR.org,” he adds. Using an emergency contact system makes it easier to reconnect with family after a disaster, and provides a starting point for medical personnel should you need help. 

The Bottom Line

PG&E’s Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS) are expected to impact thousands of California residents. If you’re an affected resident, you need to assess your situation and plan ahead to stay safe while the power is out in your home. Prioritize your most important needs and have a plan in place, so you can remain calm and connected throughout the blackout.

Photo by Bouillante/GettyImages


Mandie Kelleher headshot
Mandie Kelleher

Mandie Kelleher is a freelance writer who has covered personal finance and lifestyle topics for sites like Reviews.com, thesimpledollar.com and Insurify.