How to Prepare for Blackouts, Wild Fires, or the Big One

If the recent blackouts taught you that you’re ill-prepared for disaster, take these tips to heart on how to get your act together.


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Photo above courtesy GoalZero; below, Ramona d'Viola

Disconcerting as it may be, Bay Area residents are accustomed to a little geological rock and roll, and increasingly, unquenchable wild fires. Now, add Public Safety Power Shutoffs, or PSPS, to the list of catastrophes that affect the region.

It was this man-made event that shut down Northern California’s electric grid recently in a poorly executed response to severe weather and high winds. Soon enough, residents will be fretting about hurricanes or blizzards, but for now, PG&E’s blackouts are just part of the new normal. The word from on high is that Californians should get used to it.

If there’s a silver lining to this dark cloud of a drill, it’s that you discovered that you were prepared — or you weren’t. And now you know. Here are some tips on how to get your act together if you fall into the latter category.

A gas generator or a solar-powered power station is a necessity for every household. With high capacity and long-lasting storage, today’s clean solar-powered power stations are viable alternatives to their noisy, gas-powered cousins. Brands like Goal Zero and EcoFlow have families of solar-powered products designed to keep everything humming — from your phone  to your fridge — when the juice goes off. 

Speaking of solar, if you haven’t already installed panels on your property, there’s no time like the present. With the threat of ongoing PSPS events into the foreseeable future, it’s time to put all that abundant California sunshine to work for your own household. Then seal the off-the-grid deal with a battery bank.

Increasingly affordable Brands like LG and Mercedes have entered the high-capacity battery storage space. Topping the charts for cost, Tesla’s impeccably designed Powerwalls buys you peace of mind during a power outage, and you’ll begin to recoup the cost the next time the switches get flipped. 

Moreover, a 5-kW solar system adds an average of $30,000 to the value of a mid-size home in the Bay Area, along with plenty of free, green, renewable energy. Take that, PG&E.

With another wet, cold Bay Area winter on the horizon, keeping warm when the power goes out is a valid concern, especially for families with kids and the elderly. Even gas-powered homes might be affected by electric power outages, wildfires, or earthquakes.

First, you should know where your gas meter is and how to turn it off. A large adjustable wrench near or attached via a length of cable or chain to your meter keeps it at the ready during and after an emergency event.

For the lucky ones with fireplaces, time to chop wood and get out the marshmallows — or better yet, the Tuscan grill. For the rest of us, it’s fuel-burning heater time with caveats. Any heater using a combustible fuel source requires extreme caution.

The good news is the latest spate of gas- and propane-powered indoor heaters have made great strides in minimizing their fire and exhaust risk. Companies like Mr. Heater offer sturdy, well-designed propane heaters in a variety of sizes for different applications. The Little Buddy is a compact heating device designed to warm a 95-square-foot space, while its larger, portable brother, the Buddy Heater will keep a 450-square-foot room comfortable. Easy to use, these devices attach to a canister, a propane tank, or both, and feature accidental tip-over safety shutoff systems to maximize safety.

At the bottom of the recommendation list for keeping warm during a power outage are kerosene heaters. They require appropriate and adequate ventilation, which is not always possible during inclement weather or during smoky, fire events. However, when used properly, you won’t be the cause of your own conflagration.

Coolers and ice chests will only last so long, so it’s always a good idea to stock the pantries with nonperishable and non-cook foods as part of your hunkering down preparations. An electric kettle (plugged into your generator) and pre-ground coffee in a French press will definitely spark joy on a cold and dreary morning.

Retain the chill in your fridge for as long as possible without a generator by opening it sparingly. Remember, if your refrigerator goes without power longer than three or four days, chances are your perishables have perished and should be disposed of. 

Set up an outdoor kitchen with a Coleman stove, toaster oven, or a fancy propane-powered burner and dine al fresco (weather permitting).

Lastly, don’t forget to invite (or check in on) your neighbors. Build your community before the catastrophes because everyone is all in this together. Prep the grill and make the best of it.