California Heatwave of 2020 and the Barbecued Squirrel

In May 2020, as Californians wondered if they’d ever be released back into the public sphere, a rogue San Jose squirrel made its own break for freedom. The rodent burrowed into a PG&E riser – the ground conduit connecting overhead to underground power lines. Perhaps he was hungry and gnawed through a misfortunate wire; perhaps it was simply a tragic accident. But the squirrel was soon cooked well-done. Unfortunately, for the human omnivores uninterested in roadkill, the site of the great rodent roast was not repaired. Power was simply transferred to a nearby transformer.

Fast forward three months: August 2020. 

(For all the shenanigans this cursed year has unearthed, no one gets to act surprised about a late summer California heatwave. That’s like the free-play center square on Golden State Bingo.) 

But I digress – back to August where our fine state has decided to spice up the excitement with the worst heatwave in 70 years(Fun fact, Death Valley hit 130 degrees yesterday, potentially the highest temperature ever recorded on Earth.)

With the state and county still on lockdown, sheltering-in-place from COVID-19, all typical options to collectively beat the heat were off the table. Instead, it was every household for themselves – all adults working from home, all children distant and remote as they stared at school screens, and all familial units collectively trying to tame indoor Mordor with AC.

Unsurprisingly, the sad little transformer that could – could not handle double duty. 

It exploded.

Saturday night, neighbors called to report a power outage. They also noted the smell of smoke. Since PG&E has priors with the relational causality of such combined occurrences, the fire department was soon on scene. A PG&E rep also rolled up armed with the task of confirming there was no gas leak. 

But wait, you say. I thought we were talking about electricity. What does gas have to do with this overheated epic tale? Nothing. Nothing at all.

So 30-45 minutes later, when smoke became fire and another PG&E rep from the E side of the biz arrived, the fire department was able to extinguish the blaze in a safe manner. Meanwhile, PG&E sent a note to the melting masses,

“A Final Important Note: These outages are not Public Safety Power Shutoffs, which are called during specific high fire threat conditions, and they are not related to any issues with PG&E’s equipment or our ability to deliver energy locally.”

Interjection from your friendly comms professional over here… The equipment literally blew up. Flames. Emerging from the ground. Melding wires into molten blackouts down the entire block.

So there we sat. Sweltering and waiting.

Saturday morning broke with sonic booms of thunder cracking over the city sky at 3 a.m. Lightening bolted and sliced through the night air, stabbing at unsuspecting buildings, as rare thunderstorms rolled through Silicon Valley.

Unsurprisingly, nature’s artistic additions to these electric events also paused the enthusiasm for repair crews to commence replacing squirrel shrapnel.

Sunday afternoon, Jon and I grabbed some bottled water (artisanly luke warm with no ice) and headed over to where the repair trucks were staging the grand debut of the new transformer and cable pas de duex.

“You here for the update?” A tired crew lady asked.

“Yup. And we come with offerings of water so you guys don’t overheat and explode either.” I replied, proffering the hydration.

She laughed. “OMG. It’s bad. Like really bad.” (Obviously this was extremely reassuring.) “Plan for at least another 24 hours.”

It was now 104 degrees.

Monday dawned with a a growing ashen haze across the sky. I viewed this as Mother Earth’s disapproval of my lack of power. English teachers will likely call this “foreshadowing” for the cliche California trope to burn down every Fall. (But not any of the local middle or high school teachers. Both educational institutions were canceled due to that pesky distance learning requirement for power.)

The 5 a.m. expected restoration time greeted us with an update that we should now plan for noon.

The noon expected restoration update let us know 3 p.m. was the new target.

3 p.m. buzzed right on into the muggy afternoon with a cheeky note that J/K! It’s totes gonna be 6 p.m. now.

At 5pm we received an unplanned notification. I grabbed for my phone with excitement thinking that it may be an early power up! 

“Due to extreme heat and high demand that may be greater than supply, the state’s electrical grid operator may require PG&E to turn off power in additional rotating outages from 3-10pm each day from Aug. 17-20.”

But the joke’s on them. Can’t qualify as an “additional” outage if we’re still in our current one!

So anyway, long story short, that’s why I’m selling my soul for a Tesla Power Wall (and possibly an iced adult beverage). 

May the damn squirrel rest in peace knowing his death was heatedly avenged.

PS. We have our power back. For now…

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