You can expect electricity to be turned off, whether or not there is a fire in your area. Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) is what they’re officially called. (“PG&E covering its ass” is what they’re unofficially called). Power is now routinely cut during wind and heat events when downed lines are likely. As we’ve seen countless times in the recent past, you cannot rely on the current electrical grid in an emergency, if indeed at all, so…just be prepared for the power to go off. This goes for natural gas, too.
The first thing to do is build a habit of keeping your phone (and other devices, but especially your phone) charged up. If you can get in the habit of charging your phone at the same time of day, that helps. In addition to doing that, I tend to charge continuously if we’re getting any notice of impending power shutoffs.
But don’t expect your phone to work properly in an emergency, especially during a power outage that lasts for days. It’s great when it does, but cell towers are also prone to failure. Most have backup generators, but teams need to be able to reach them to refuel the generators to keep them working. A small old-school AM/FM (not internet) radio with extra batteries should be part of your preparation.
If you need to buy a radio, I can recommend the Sony ICF-S10MK2 (don’t pay more than $30 for it) or an old Sony ICF-38 (for not more than $50). If you get these models, you’ll probably need to buy used ones, but that’s fine if they work. They are expensive because they work well in places with poor radio signal; you might very well be able to get away with something cheaper. Unfortunately, I live in a neighborhood that seems like a defective Faraday cage.
For lighting, nothing beats a headlamp. Since this isn’t a case where you’re backpacking and need to reduce every ounce, cheap headlamps are fine. I have one I keep with my travel bag, but then I have a backup three-pack of cheapies from Costco as well. And extra batteries.
To work from home, I need to keep a computer and internet router going. Those, along with communications and a little lighting, are my major needs.
What I finally settled on is the Jackery Explorer 500w power station. This winter, I picked up an optional solar panel kit for it as well. I paid about $475 for the power station and $275 for the solar panel kit (look at Amazon returned items for a deal; promo codes are hard to come by on these).
With the Jackery, I can get about ten hours of router usage (I currently use ViaSat and will do a happy dance later this year when Starlink arrives). I know I can get ten hours of router-only time out of the 500w model because I tested it on a perfectly normal day. I like to put everything through a test run before the emergency. I also learned that it is not silent; it has a fan that kicks in periodically. Anyhow—I think it’s a good idea to test gear once a year.
A power station like this is much quieter than a gasoline generator and super handy to throw in the car for camping trips (also known as “evacuation” — see below). Plus you don’t need to deal with gasoline. Gasoline in and of itself is fine, but my preference is to not have a lot of flammable materials around and definitely to not be handling them during a fire emergency.
The solar panels from Jackery have their own connections for directly charging small devices or recharging the power station. It takes about a full day of sun to replenish the 500w power station with the 100w solar kit. Personally, I expect the solar to be more useful for camping—smoke blocks sunlight, rendering the panels much less effective in those conditions. The power station alone will allow me to work normally for about a day during an outage. After that, I’m going to either pre-evacuate or just take time off. (My brain is usually fried by then anyhow.)
I’ve heard good things about Yeti power systems also, and there are lots of other brands out there. The trouble with these, of course, is that they’re expensive. If you’re a maker and skilled with electrical things, you can put together a DIY system for much less—here’s a good video to get you started.
Your car, too, can act as a sort of electric generator of last resort. Most of us are used to charging our phones in the car, but a car power inverter can give you the freedom to plug in a laptop, router, or even charge up that battery power station. I have an old inverter that I keep stashed in the car. Just make sure you keep enough gas in the tank for evacuation because you need to run the car to keep that battery charged up. You do not want to be calling AAA for a jump when the evacuation is announced!
You don’t want to buy a lot of food that requires refrigeration when Red Flag Days are in the forecast.
I fill extra space in my freezer with almost full gallon jugs of water I keep for use during fire season (water expands when frozen, so the jugs will burst if you fill them completely full). The extra mass of the ice helps keep the freezer from warming up as quickly. The idea is to have as little empty space in the freezer as possible. You can use any container that fits—for a deep freezer, you could potentially use even larger containers of water. Just leave space for some expansion.
If power has already been off for a while and I decide to leave my home (evacuation order or not), my latest strategy is to empty the freezer and fridge as much as possible and just accept the loss (or better yet, take the food to wherever I’m going and share it). This is better than coming home a week or more later and cleaning out rotting food. When I do this, I also unplug the appliance and prop the doors open—otherwise, one becomes a mold farmer.
Sometimes you can file a claim with your energy provider or state to get some reimbursement on lost food. Here’s PG&E’s page about it. I’ve never done that myself.
Electric stoves, microwaves, and other appliances don’t work during a power outage. Natural gas is also not something to count on (I’m not a natural gas user, so I’m a bit unclear as to when they shut this down—though after the last evacuations, natural gas users had to wait for a visit from PG&E to turn their gas back on, extending their outage.)
If you have a propane-powered range with your own tank in the yard, that will work just fine. If your propane stove uses electrical ignition instead of a pilot light, you might have to light it with a match.
The best solution is sometimes to cook as little as possible. Second-best is to use a propane cookstove/grill, though never unattended. My own backup is a semi-portable “Tailgater” that has a griddle on one side and a grill box on the other. The grill box can be removed to use with a wok, pot, or teakettle.
There’s no need to buy something if you already have one you use for camping—just make sure you have the required fuel on hand.
As you might imagine, now is not the time to try cooking with a campfire, fire pit, or any kind of wood fire. You don’t want any fire that throws sparks. Just say no to anything that creates smoke, because that has a tendency to create consequent panic among your neighbors.
You need to know where your water comes from and how this source is affected by catastrophes.
If you’re on a well, a power outage means that the pump for the well won’t be operating. It’s probably a good idea to prepare for a municipal water system to fail as well, as there are usually similar dependencies on power. You want to have plenty of water on hand for drinking, cooking, washing up, and flushing the toilet.
For washing up and flushing toilets, you can fill buckets up outside before the shutoff. If you don’t need it, you can use it to water your plants. Covering them is a good idea to keep falling ash and mosquitos out. Five-gallon buckets with lids are pretty cheap at most hardware stores. You can also use water from a hot tub or pool for flushing (more on that below).
Sometimes there’s water available, but it’s not nice (or even safe) to drink. This happens to me when the well stops working, I’m out of stored drinking water, and I need to get water directly from the tank instead before it’s passed through the filtration system.
Because of this, I invested in a Berkey Filter, a purifier that can make nearly any water source safe to drink (which one of those cheap filter pitchers do not—they simply make safe water nicer). This paid dividends in one shut-off after things returned to normal. The restarted well water was cloudy, so I felt better using the purifier for quite some time after. The one I got runs about $250—yes, this stuff adds up. I recommend talking to someone at REI if you want a smaller and less expensive solution.
Flushing the toilet
Here’s how to flush your toilet when the water is off, if you’re not already familiar with the process.
You won’t be luxuriating in the shower during a water shut-off (your hot water might be out anyway, too) but you’ll be amazed at how effective a bucket bath can be if you do it right. You just need a bucket (maybe three gallons) of hot water, and a bowl to scoop with. I spent over two years doing this routine while in Peace Corps:
- Heat water to your desired temperature, maybe a little warmer since the heat will dissipate a bit while you bathe.
- Take the bucket of hot water and bowl (or other smaller container) into the tub or shower with you.
- Bend over and use the smaller container to pour water over just your head; lather up (shampoo if you’re washing hair) and then rinse. If it’s chilly at all, I find this makes it a lot nicer than getting my entire body wet and then shivering while I’m dealing with everything up top.
- Once your head is done, pour enough water over the rest of your body to wet it down. Lather up with a shower poof or washcloth and scrub everything down, getting all your bits. Don’t forget your feet. Add water as needed to keep the lather going. Do it right and you’ll probably be about halfway through your water when you’re done scrubbing.
- Use the rest of the water to rinse, all the way from your head down.
Some people like fancy camp showers; I just find them unnecessary.
Cooling and heating
Fire season in Northern California tends to coincide with heat waves and power outages. That means that fans and air conditioners are not an option, and being hot sucks.
I use the same process that I do on any hot day, but these ideas may be new to you if you’re accustomed to energy-driven climate controls. Most of them are just commonsense tactics based on the same principles as passive solar design. If you want to geek out on that more, dive into David Holmgren’s Retrosuburbia, a massive guide to climate resilience. In any case, this is what I do:
- I open windows at night and the cool hours of the morning, letting it get as cold as possible indoors (unless the air quality from smoke is terrible). Then I close doors and windows as soon as the sun starts hitting the house in the morning.
- I pull blackout drapes over any windows that get direct sun. Shading these windows makes a tremendous difference.
- I try to do any cooking outside. I have a small apartment, and the range is close to the door, so if I’ve got power and am just dealing with heat, I open the door a bit and set a small fan up to exhaust cooking heat out the door. (Obviously, a proper oven vent would be better.)
- I turn off any heat-generating electronics I can. Mostly this means working from my laptop screen only and turning my feverish Thunderbolt display off.
I find heatwaves to be particularly miserable things to live through. I lived in Chicago during the 1995 heat wave and power outage when we joined many others in the city by desperately walking to the lake and standing in it waist-deep to cool off. I haven’t seen that kind of disaster here in Sonoma county—yet. But please keep in mind that if you’re in a heatwave without power, you may need to leave your home to get relief. Please check on your elderly neighbors as this is a particularly dangerous situation for them. If you do have power, DIY swamp coolers can be effective in small spaces.
Since a lot of this advice is useful for emergencies other than wildfires, I’ll say something about heat as well. It’s not a problem where I live — in the winter, outages are usually due to rainstorms, and it’s not fire season. So we can use things like gas stoves, wood stoves, and fireplaces to augment heat in the winter. If you live somewhere where there are power outages, it’s cold, and you primarily use electricity to heat, try to have some sort of backup.
Gasoline for car owners
If your area goes into a mandatory evacuation, you don’t want to have to fill up the gas tank before leaving town. Gas stations can’t pump during a power outage unless they have generators on site.
This is another case where setting up an ongoing habit makes things a little easier when the time comes. I’ve been filling up when my gas tank drops to between a half and a quarter tank. If I do this consistently, I don’t have to worry so much about remembering to do it when fire season comes.
Traffic during an evacuation can be bad enough. People are stressed out and it impairs their driving. (More on this under evacuation below.) I don’t want to add the frustration of waiting in line at a gas station to my experience.