Survival tools to deal with PG&E's power shutdowns: A generator, a battery-powered lantern and a 1917 bugle to sound alerts. (Photo by Darby Patterson)

In summary

Darby Patterson, writer in Pollock Pines: Sitting in the dark for seven days, we respect Mother Nature but resent PG&E for not keeping up with maintenance. Of the seven days, we had one day of big wind up in Pollock Pines. It was a day to be grateful PG&Es neglected power lines were not providing us service.

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By Darby Patterson, Special to CalMatters

Darby Patterson is a former journalist who currently writes and publishes from her home in Pollock Pines, She wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

My husband and I moved up to the mountains from Sacramento about three years ago. We yearned to be able to see the stars, smell the pines, hear the quiet. 

My husband would be close enough to commute to Sacramento and, thanks to the deployment of Wifi to rural areas, I could work from home. We reasoned the kids and grandkids would enjoy long weekends hiking, playing in the snow, skipping rocks in the nearby lake. We were prepared to make a few sacrifices from city life. Overall, we are pleased and fortunate to be at the 4,000-foot elevation with Mother Nature as our closest neighbor.

Thus, when the recent power outages indiscriminately swept the region, we thought we’d tough it out. Not complain. Light the battery-operated lamps and the woodstove, role play Glamping for a few days. 

But when the ice maker turned its contents to water and filled the vegetable bins, and some other comforts of life became more than inconveniences, we bought our very own, very loud generator.

I waited in lines at our nearby two-pump gas station lugging five-gallon gas cans with scores of others who had not planned ahead. I learned how to fill the generator without pouring gas into my shoes.

Other than some power outlets not working, zero TV reception and waking up to a house that was little more than forty-degrees I thought it might be bearable. I was raised in Minnesota. Need I say more?

That pioneer spirit was broken when I discovered our communication systems were down. No cell phone calls or texts. No Wifi. I could not conduct a usual workday.  There was no connectivity for many miles. 

I drove to Folsom to catch up nearly every day, packing dogs into truck, grabbing laptop, and cell, shutting off the generator, asking the refrigerator to chill, please, for a couple hours.

Our nearest Safeway was out of business for a couple of days and lost a staggering amount of food before a mega generator was hauled in at a cost of more than $10,000 a day, according to an employee. Struggling restaurants and the modestly paid people who work at them suffered significant losses. Parents had to stay home from work because the schools were closed.

With the neighborhood apps we use to share news inaccessible, that chain of important communication was lost. Updates about safety and  advice from old timers who’d been through some things up here could not be shared. 

Accidents on our winding roads were not reported. I wondered how would we summon help if we did have a fire or some other emergency. Surely not smoke signals, considering the goal of the outage.

And, significantly, we couldn’t receive PG&E’s notices about how long the outage might last or even access their weather reports to learn just how severe the winds might be. Out of the seven days we endured cutoff from essential services, we had one day of big wind up here in our niche of the Sierra. 

It was a day to be grateful PG&Es neglected power lines were not providing us service. From my kitchen window, I look out and see numerous tall pines just aching to snap off and land on a live line. These trees were clearly marked by PG&Es contractors for trimming or removal. They’ve been marked for well over a year now, almost like forest graffiti.

Throughout it all, my biggest concern had been knowing that my neighbors, many well beyond retirement age, were safe. That they had a way to signal us if help was needed. As a collector of musical instruments, most of which I cannot play, I rounded up my noise makers for distribution. Chief among them is a 1917 brass bugle that could likely be heard in space when played, no musical talent or technology required.

Any reasonable person appreciates the critical need for fire safety even if it comes at personal costs that go far beyond mere inconvenience. That we harbor deep resentments at being seriously impacted because an investor-owned utility failed to take care of business for decades is also understandable. 

We’ll put up with these conditions, those imposed by PG&E out of neglect and those handed to us by Mother Nature whom we respect and appreciate for the lifestyle we treasure.


Darby Patterson is a former journalist who currently writes and publishes from her home in Pollock Pines, She wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

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