Local fires and power outages shake community

First Place (tie), News Writing

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Katrina Ortman, Acalanes High School

Black smoke billowed into the sky. Heavy branches fell at unsuspecting pedestrians. Families scrambled to pull together essentials following evacuation orders. Drivers grumbled in long lines of traffic. A normal, relaxing Sunday in Lafayette erupted into chaos.

On Sunday, Oct. 27, high winds blew into the Lamorinda area, contributing to two brush fires that started in the area.

One fire south of Highway 24 and parallel to Pleasant Hill Road, named the Pleasant Fire, was first reported at 1:20 p.m.. Another fire north of the highway near Acalanes High School, dubbed the Curtola Fire, was reported around 1:23 p.m.. Power remained on in both areas before the outbreaks while much of the city went without.
Lafayette resident Geoff Martin reported hearing the sounds of electric arcs from power lines that most likely ignited the Curtola fire.

“It sounded like a ‘boom’,” Martin said. “I’m an electrician and so I know what the sound of an arc is like that and so I knew what it was when I heard it, I just didn’t know where it was. But my neighbor that saw it said it happened three times that day.”

Contra Costa County Fire Protection District (ConFire) released a media advisory on Nov. 1 stating that it believes Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) power lines started both Lafayette fires. However, investigations are still ongoing.

“On Oct. 27, PG&E filed two Electric Incident Reports with the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) related to the Lafayette fires. The information provided in the report is preliminary; PG&E is continuing to investigate,” PG&E said in a prewritten statement to Blueprint. The company declined to
answer further questions despite numerous attempts by Blueprint to contact a media representative.

The Curtola fire soon spread, scorching the Lafayette Tennis Club which hosted a junior tennis tournament when the fire began.

We just ran to our cars and left,” tennis player Harsha Rebby said.

The two-story tennis club and two of its outbuildings completely burned down, and one private residence nearby received
minor damage. Firefighters and policemen were quick to respond to the sudden blazes in Lafayette. ConFire managed the two incidents simultaneously, using Acalanes as a command center to organize the 56 crews they dispatched.

“We were fighting fires on multiple sides. It was important to bring them all together at some point. It would be just chaos if they all converged right on the fire scene,” ConFire Public Information Officer Steve Hill said.

Lafayette residents living near Camino Diablo and Spring brook Road received evacuation orders at 2:05 p.m., and those living south of Old Tunnel Road received orders at 2:44 p.m.. The sudden evacuations caused many Lafayette residents to panic and collect personal belongings. Families gathered
heirlooms, important documents, and other valuables into their vehicles. Pets appeared an even larger source of panic, as people scrambled to find their cats and dogs.
“It was a very chaotic and rushed experience,” sophomore Ella Tinianow, whose family had to crowd three cats and a dog into their car, said.

Numerous students fed to the Safeway parking lot in down- town Lafayette. Residents north of Highway 24 rushed to the Acalanes parking lot. However, because ConFire occupied the lot, it could not be used as an evacuation site. Police eventually designated Springhill Elementary School as the evacuation site,
prompting criticism from residents on Springhill Road.

“Springhill was a bad evacuation spot because it’s located in an area where it’s difficult to get in and out of, and it’s a small school and parking lot,” Lafayette resident Noelle Brown said.

While many residents evacuated, some chose to stay and protect their neighborhood’s homes despite the evacuation orders.

“We were told to evacuate. I didn’t buy into that. We were going to fight it, and that’s what we did,” sophomore Christine
Mlynek said.

ConFire posted on Twitter that frefghters had stopped the spread of the blaze at 2:59 p.m., but the fres were still uncontained. Evacuations for the Pleasant Hill fire were lifted at 5:05 p.m. and the Curtola Fire evacuations were lifted at 7:08 p.m..

Chaos in the Darkness
During the fires, difficulties contacting friends and family distressed many Lafayette residents. Unreliable cellular service amid prescheduled public safety power shutoffs (PSPS) by PG&E obstructed communication efforts. During power outag- es, cell towers typically stop working or become overloaded from calls and texts.

“I get in my car and I don’t know where I’m going to go. I have no contact with my family or literally anyone for that matter,” Acalanes junior Shayna Parker said.

The PSPS, like the one of early October, impacted students’ daily lives and left many unable to complete homework assignments.

“My main concern was my homework and not being able to finish,” Campolindo sophomore Maya Armstrong-Azhar said.

This complication added more stress on top of the evacuations, poor air quality, and struggle to contact friends and family. Originally, Miramonte and Campolindo High School were the only schools in the Acalanes Union High School District (AUHSD) scheduled to not have power the week of Oct. 28.

However, high winds and fires forced outages at Acalanes High School as well. The effects of the two fires were not confined to Sunday, as Information Officer Steve Hill said.

The school struggled to operate normally; several staff members stayed home, and there were not enough substitutes for every class. Communication posed a major challenge to the district office and administration on Monday. Without power and the Aeries attendance portal, teachers had to take attendance on paper.

The Acalanes community felt the impacts of the fires through- out the following week; Acalanes remained without power on Monday and Tuesday. Administrators said that Acalanes lost electricity due to a downed power line, which was likely brought down by a combination of the fires and high winds. Although school remained open on Monday, the two-day power outage forced Acalanes to cancel school on Tuesday, Oct. 29. No other schools within the district canceled school, as power was restored to the three other campuses.

Since Acalanes was not slated to lose power during the PSPS, the administration was underprepared to deal with the technical issues that came with a three-day-long outage.

“What we realized is that we can get through a day with no power, or losing power in the middle of the day,” Administrative Services Associate Superintendent Amy McNamara said. “Going two days seemed really stressful for staff, and the problem becomes that some of the local staff have been evacuated; they’ve been without power in their homes.”

Phones, intercom, clocks, and bell systems were down, and students experienced general confusion when moving betweenclasses.

The AUHSD district office next to Acalanes lost power as well. District workers relocated to the Del Valle Center of Education in Walnut Creek in search of power, but this arrangement still posed complications. In the case of an emergency, such as another fire outbreak, the district office would not have been able to quickly relay information to Acalanes– an unsafe situation that factored into school closure on Tuesday.

Without power, the fire alarms and the PA system could not operate. According to the protocol outlined by the California Fire Code, school campuses must be checked for fires every 30 minutes if its fire alarms are nonfunctional. Administration split the Acalanes campus into two zones and took one-hour shifts watching for fire safety. Fire monitors checked how classes were faring through the outage while patrolling.

“During fire watch, I was talking to students and building a profile of how the student experience was today and how the teacher experience was in case there are future days like this so we can give the best ‘product’ we have on days like this,” Associate Principal Mike Plant said.

While administrators walked around campus, they picked up paper attendance records from classrooms. Overall, the combination of high fire risk, lack of communication, and potentially dangerous situations created a stressful atmosphere for both students and staff. Acalanes, clearly unable to operate efficiently and safely, decided to shut down the following day.

“We didn’t realize how stressful and taxing it was to kids, families, and teachers, to lose power in their homes, to have schools with no power, and just trying to maintain a sense of normalcy,” McNamara said.

The power outage also significantly impacted Acalanes’ food services. The school could not keep food heated or run its refrigerators, meaning that the cafeteria did not cook food in-house as usual. As an alternative, the school ordered in pizza for students.

Smoke from the fires lingered in the air, resulting in unhealthy air quality. Some AUHSD students and parents criticized the schools for staying open in the week following the fires, accusing the district of risking students’ health for money. However, the administration denied this assumption.

“[Funding is] not based on attendance so much. We’re unique in that way. Our solutions are either to get a waiver, which right now the state is granting very easily, or to make up the day, then we wouldn’t be penalized for having fewer days. So that was definitely a rumor,” Superintendent John Nickerson said.

Without power, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems did not function. This led students and parents to express concern over whether it was safe to be at school, considering that smoke could not be ventilated out of classrooms. Despite this, AUHSD believed air quality would remain satisfactory if teachers kept windows shut and limited how often they opened doors.

Administration encouraged students to stay inside during break and lunch, and all sports practices–both indoor and outdoor–were canceled on Monday. In the week after, PE classes and after school sports were limited or canceled depending on the Air Quality Index (AQI).

“From 100 to 150 we start trying to encourage people to go indoors for lunch. We have PE go inside and we start monitoring after school sports. Once it’s over 150, we cancel after school sports. When it’s above 300, then we’re seriously looking at whether it’s safe to have school,” Nickerson said.

The varsity girls volleyball team was supposed to play on Tuesday, Oct. 29; however, the North Coast Section Round 1 game was pushed back to Thursday on Halloween.

“Some people on my team were bummed about [missing Halloween], but we were focused on the game,” varsity volleyball player and junior Erin Meade said.

Beyond athletics, the power outage directly impacted most classes. The band room is built without windows to maximize acoustics, so the room was pitch-black. Students could not read= their music without lighting, so none of the four instrumental music classes played music on Monday.

Additionally, classes that depend heavily on technology such as Digital Design, Video Production, and some science classes were unable to function normally. Biotechnology teacher Sydney Johnson lost about $1,500 worth of lab supplies and chemicals when the refrigerator in her room turned off.

“We don’t have a generator hooked up to this building or anything, so the chemicals got warm, and they have to be kept at a specific temperature range in order to be usable and work the way they are supposed to,” Johnson said.

The loss of these materials altered the scheduled curriculum of the class. Johnson stated that she needs to reorder supplies and redirect parts of the class’s budget before continuing with the normal curriculum and labs. On the other hand, classes that operate independently from technology were relatively unaffected. In these cases, teachers didn’t change lesson plans, but still observed a shift in student concentration.

“We’re definitely a little less studious than we would’ve been. I think everybody’s tired and frazzled and stressed out,” AP Environmental Science teacher Jada Paniagua said.

Because Acalanes was the only school in the district to close, questions arose about how Acalanes will make up the day. By law, a school must be in session for 180 day. Due to the November cancellation, Acalanes will only be in session for 179 days. One potential solution to this problem is to waive the absence. Last year, the state granted the AUHSD a waiver due to dangerous air quality from the Camp Fire. Another possibility is to make up the day later in the 2019-20 school year.

“We would hate for [students] to lose a day of instruction, so we will see,” Nickerson said.

The New Normal
As a result of recent Northern California wildfires, air quality is a recurring issue for Acalanes. As fires and air quality problems become consistent, Nickerson acknowledges that the district must find a long-term plan.

One proposed idea “smoke days.” Similarly to snow days, extra days would scheduled at the end of the year in the event of cancellations. If the extra days are not needed, then the school does not need to use them.

“I don’t think the state’s going to keep granting waivers. They’re going to want people to figure out a solution,” Nickerson said.

Despite the issues posed by the power outages and fires, some residents viewed them as a learning experience.

“We’ll certainly make a checklist of things. We’ll probably make some go bags,” Martin said.

AUHSD is currently developing several options to address the frequent fires and power outages. The district’s chief focus rests on bringing lighting to classrooms and keeping communication systems in place, thus minimizing the overall effect of outages on school days.

One proposed solution is to invest in a power generator, which would be located on campus and directly connect to the school.

Depending on the generator size, it could allow the administration to run the computer, phone, and intercom systems. However, high costs may deter such a purchase. Another option is to reengineer the parking lot solar panels so they feed directly to Acalanes rather than to a general power grid. While classrooms would still lack light, communication would run smoothly and the school would not have to resort to paper attendance. Food services and other vital systems would function as well.

Despite possible solutions, Acalanes will continue to feel the effects of a changing climate, frequent wildfires, and regular power outages for years to come. Administrators hope to uphold the normal routine of the school day and ask that students be patient and understanding when faced with these adverse circumstances.

“I don’t understand how we’re going to have any solution that’s going to fix the PG&E infrastructure or reverse climate change in the next couple of years, so I think we need to plan for more events like this, whether it is lack of power or air quality due to fire,” Nickerson said.

To many community members, the Pleasant Hill and Curtola fires marked a brutal introduction of climate change in Lafayette. For the first time in years of California wildfires, Lafayette experienced fires in its own neighborhoods. Residents did not merely watch headlines of fires miles away from them, such as the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County; instead, Lafayette became the headline.

“I had no idea what to expect. It was so scary. It was the scariest day of my life not knowing where anyone was while there was so much at stake,” Parker said.

Though these catastrophes are largely unavoidable, steps can still be taken to stay safe and lessen the impacts of fires, evacuations, and smoke that seem to have become the new normal in California.

“We have to respond by educating ourselves and taking a stand in protecting our environment,” Acalanes Principal Travis Bell said.

Staying inside and away from smoke during periods of low air quality helps maintain lung health, and preparing an evacuation bag in case of extreme emergencies keeps families ready for any natural disaster. Making an evacuation plan, identifying safe spaces, and understanding the environmental threats that Lafayette faces are all advised safety measures.

“The world’s changing. It’s changing all the time and we’re in a situation now for various reasons where fire danger is much more acute. It is something for the next generation to look at and embrace and try to help make it easier,” City of Lafayette Communications Analyst Jeffrey Heyman said.

This story was an honoree in the 2020 Lesher Awards competition.