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Humboldt Weathers Blackout, Braces for Another 

The Milky Way over Eureka's Pink Lady during the blackout on Oct. 27.

Photo by Kenneth Tinkham

The Milky Way over Eureka's Pink Lady during the blackout on Oct. 27.

As this issue of the Journal went to press, most of Humboldt County was emerging from 36 hours of darkness and trying to take advantage of a projected 16 or so hours of electricity before a second consecutive PG&E blackout was expected to hit by 4:30 a.m. Oct. 29.

The company cut power to nearly 1 million customers across three dozen counties Oct. 26, including about 60,000 in Humboldt County, which began going dark at about 10:30 p.m. The outage was a part of the company's drastic measures to avoid catastrophic wildfires caused by its failing power lines by shutting down huge swaths of its power grid when forecasts of high wind and low humidity combined for heightened fire conditions.

As the Journal went to press Monday afternoon, officials were warning that the weather event spurring the Oct. 29 blackout could stretch into Oct. 31, after which PG&E would have to inspect power lines before restoring electricity, a process that could take a couple of days. They urged residents with a brief window of power to use it recharging electric devices, restocking supplies, refueling cars and preparing to be without.

Humboldt County — which also saw its electricity cut for 28 hours on Oct. 8 and Oct. 9 — seemed to weather the latest blackout better than the first. Officials indicated that's likely because the county had more advance notice from PG&E — more than 48 hours compared to just six the first time — and had already experienced one.

Public safety agencies report that things were generally calm after PG&E cut power to Humboldt County beginning around 10:30 p.m. Oct. 26, though there were some reported generator thefts.

Eureka Police Chief Steve Watson said three generators were confirmed stolen in the city since the blackout began — two from the backs of trucks and one from the backyard of a residence during the night. Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal similarly said his office received reports of generator thefts. Both urged folks to make sure their generators are locked down, secured and not left out overnight.

"Also, people have been complaining about generator noise," Honsal said in a text message to the Journal. "But there's not much we can do about that right now."

(This seems a good opportunity to remind folks that OES is asking folks to refrain from calling 911 unless they are experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening emergency.)

A generator also reportedly caught fire behind Big Blue Café in Arcata on Oct. 27. Another tenant of the building reported that he saw smoke and called the Arcata Volunteer Fire Department, but got a dead signal, so he ran around the block and banged on the door. The department responded swiftly from there and quickly got the fire under control before it could do much damage.

The county saw at least six people hospitalized with respiratory issues after their breathing aides failed in the Oct. 8 outage. One man who rapidly decompensated and had to be airlifted to an out of area hospital later died. However, preparedness seems to have staved off similar issues in the Oct. 26 outage. Christian Hill, a spokesperson for St. Joseph Hospital, said staff didn't see an uptick in patients during the outage. He largely attributed that to community efforts to set up medical device charging stations and make sure people had the supplies they needed heading into the blackout.

Efforts to reach Mad River Hospital for this story were unsuccessful by deadline.

The Humboldt County Office of Emergency Services was referring people with disabilities or who are dependent on electricity to power life-sustaining medical equipment to Tri-County Independent Living [(833) 866-8444]. Anisa Escobedo, the organization's outreach coordinator, told the Journal it received approximately 250 calls through the outage and helped connect patients in need of electricity to power oxygen tanks and CPAP machines with local hotels that have power.

Food for People, which scrambled to consolidate three freezers worth of food into two, used a lot of dry ice to keep its food from spoiling and also brought in a refrigeration truck.

"We're holding up pretty well," said Anne Holcomb, the nonprofit food bank's executive director, adding that the organization was distributing nonperishable foods during the blackout. "All programs are operational."

Holcomb said Food for People reached out to senior and home-bound clients to offer to deliver their food during the blackout. She said that while the food bank's phone systems are down when the power is out, its main office (307 W. 14th St. in Eureka) is open for walk-ins from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekdays.

A host of community resource centers and electronic device charging stations have been set up throughout the county, as well (see the list accompanying this article). Reports indicate that people looking to charge up should be prepared to wait, however, as some centers saw long lines.

Blue Lake Rancheria, meanwhile, reported as the Journal was heading to press that it still had fuel, ice and supplies, though it was limiting fuel purchases to $50 and ice to two bags per customer. Check its Facebook page for continued updates.

As was the case with the Oct. 8 and Oct. 9 blackout, information coming from PG&E has proven unreliable. The company is obviously reacting to changing weather patterns, which is a challenge, but there also seem to be other issues. The company initially told county officials that about 2,188 customers in outlying areas would be impacted in the Oct. 26 blackout but then released a map to the public a few hours later indicating that all of the county's major population centers were "in scope" and expected to lose power.

"I think you sense the frustration," Honsal told the Journal on the eve of the shutoff before referencing the conflicting information provided by the company. "When we try to get clarification, nobody can clarify for us what the true information is. So we are simply just pushing out what PG&E told us. We urge people to call PG&E and complain about the lack of information because we are doing the same thing."

The Journal's Iridian Casarez, Kali Cozyris, Jennifer Fumiko Cahill and Thadeus Greenson contributed to this report.

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