City of Berkeley, UC Berkeley prepare for potential widespread power outages

Isabella Ko/Staff

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PG&E has administered a Public Safety Power Shutoff, or PSPS, affecting about 100,000 out of Alameda County’s approximate 1.7 million residents beginning Wednesday at 8 p.m. until current weather conditions, which are conducive to wildfires, change.

The PSPS was implemented because of weather conditions that are favorable for wildfires, including high temperatures, high winds and low humidity, according to Mayor Jesse Arreguín’s website. The PSPS is expected to resolve Thursday, but this is contingent on additional weather forecasts and inspections of PG&E’s infrastructure necessary for full power to be restored, according to Stefan Elgstrand, the spokesperson for Arreguín’s office. He added that Berkeley Hills residents should be prepared for up to six days without power.

Wildfire safety has been a major concern for the city of Berkeley in recent years. Although Berkeley’s electricity comes from East Bay Community Energy, PG&E’s infrastructure — including power lines — are still used to transport electricity, according to Arreguín’s website.

“The PSPS reduces the threat of a fire being caused by electrical equipment, as was the case in the two most destructive fires in California’s history (the Camp Fire that destroyed the town of Paradise in 2018 and the Tubbs Fire that wiped out neighborhoods in Santa Rosa in 2017),” Elgstrand said in an email. “However, fire danger is still extreme due to dry and windy weather conditions.”

The PSPS reduces but does not completely eliminate wildfire risk because of windy weather conditions. Residents should still be aware of continued risk, especially if residing in high fire hazard risk areas, according to Elgstrand.

The eastern part of the Berkeley Hills, including the eastern edge of campus, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Clark Kerr Campus and Foothill housing complex, are in the very high fire hazard severity zone by Cal Fire, according to Elgstrand. The city has engaged extra first responders and patrols to keep roadways cleared and aid any residents that require assistance because of the PSPS, according to Erin Steffen, assistant to the city manager.

Berkeley Hills residents were advised to evacuate on Wednesday, as evacuation would be difficult in a fire emergency, according to a press release from Arreguín. Those with accessibility needs or life-sustaining medical equipment are also encouraged to evacuate, Elgstrand said in the email.

Stop lights and traffic signals are anticipated to go offline, and UCPD Sgt. Nicolas Hernandez said in an email that drivers and pedestrians should be extra alert when driving and crossing streets. 

All schools in the Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, will remain open, and the school district has been doing “contingency planning,” according to BUSD spokesperson Trish McDermott. This includes addressing accessibility through alternative classrooms for students and staff affected by elevators being out of operation, transportation, food services and running water.

“Our focus has been to develop a plan to keep schools open and operational,” McDermott said. “I think we’ve seen great cooperation among our staff and parent-student community in terms of showing up for a day as usual at school.”

All five Berkeley public library branches will also remain open through the outage. The libraries will provide free Wi-Fi and charging stations.

The UC Berkeley administration canceled classes Wednesday, though the Tang Center and Sproul Hall remained open and powered. The UC Berkeley Food Pantry will also continue operations in 102 Sproul Hall, according to ASUC Chief Communications Officer Bryan Huang.

UC Berkeley has provided frequent updates regarding campus closures. Marc Fisher, UC Berkeley vice chancellor of administration, released an email Wednesday night saying campus operations will resume and classes will be held Thursday, but in the event of a power outage Wednesday night or Thursday morning, that could change.

UC Berkeley residence halls have prepared for a potential 48-hour shutdown without power, lights, hot water, heat or internet access. Residence dining halls Cafe 3, Crossroads and on Clark Kerr Campus are expected to remain operational throughout the power outage, although services may be limited, according to the UC Berkeley Division of Student Affairs website.

“The ASUC is working closely with the administration to try and make sure that the resources available for different academic, medical, and cultural needs are widely conveyed to students, as well as making administrators aware of needs that aren’t currently being met,” said ASUC President Amma Sarkodee-Adoo in an email.

The UC Berkeley Disabled Students’ Program, or DSP, is also working with the administration and residence halls to meet the needs of students living on campus and is available to provide community resources to nonresident students with critical needs, according to DSP director Karen Nielson.

“I believe the campus has been taking extra precautions such as cancelling classes and keeping non-critical staff at home to protect the safety of our students and staff,” Nielson said in an email. “Hopefully we will learn from these events and will be even more prepared for future emergent situations.”

Contact Skylar Schoemig at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @sschoemig_dc.