Thu. Jun 13th, 2024

By Angry Old American

Copyright Angry Old American, August 26th, 2023. All Rights Reserved.

Most of us experienced an extended power disruption when Pacific Power cut service during the Smith River Complex Fire. This event was a blessing to our community. We received a wake-up call about our dependence on the electrical grid, and the hardships that await when it no longer exists. As a result, small personal electric generators flew off the shelves, and our community will be better prepared during future disruptions.

What lessons did we learn?

We learned that our homes, internet communications, commercial business access, and many government agencies come to a halt when power is cut. It took days for large power generators to be installed, one substation at a time, til our community’s electricity was restored. These generators are costing Pacific Power a fortune. As fire continues to rage, our lifeline of electricity from Oregon remains in jeopardy.

Foremost on the minds of many were their refrigerators and freezers. At today’s inflated prices, the loss of perishable foods make a significant impact on all families. Frozen foods will normally remain frozen in a fully stocked freezer for up to two days, as long as the freezer door remains closed. Once frozen foods thaw, they cannot be safely re-frozen without being cooked first. Many items in the refrigerator start to go bad within hours.

After a power outage, what items are safe to keep and what must be discarded? According to food safety standards, a surprising amount of food products can be salvaged. For official guidelines, simply do an internet search for “extended power outage food safety” and you will have a huge list of government and non-profit recommendations.

Being a fixed-income senior citizen, I have my standards, and am hesitant to cast out anything that might be salvageable. I’m the sort of guy who disregards expiration stamps and labels on canned goods. My own “Keep List” includes pickled and fermented foods, cultured milk products like cheese and yogurt, and cured meats have a built-in life extension. These were all centuries old methods of food preservation that existed well before refrigeration. The only caveat is store-bought cultured milk products, because many have been irradiated and contain dead culture. I make my own yogurt and cheese; so they are alive and kicking. Store bought eggs can last several days, and unwashed farm eggs can survive more than a week. Processed foods that are vacuum packed in thick plastic are most often treated with food-grade hydrogen peroxide to kill surface microbes during the packaging process. As long as plastic integrity is not breached, and the package does not bulge, such foods can last for days or even weeks. For crusty old-school folk like myself, I conduct a smell test and cook living-daylights out of these items before consuming. For those with weak constitutions, or who don’t know what to look for, follow the usual protocol:  “If in doubt, throw it out.”

Those using electricity for cooking learned that alternatives can be a challenge. These other cooking options require ventilation to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning, and must be used outdoors or inside a fireplace. Since the weather was good, many neighbors broke-out their BBQ grills. Propane camp stoves are handy and easy to setup. Chafing fuels “Canned Heat” are likewise handy.

During the power outage, hot water required boiling on a stove. One option, neglected by most, is passive solar water heating. Inexpensive solar shower bags used by campers is an excellent option for warming cleaning water prior to boiling on a stove. Even on overcast days, passive solar water heating works surprisingly well.

We learned that all of our electronic gizmos went dead quickly without their daily dose of power. Thanks to Pacific Power, cell phones, tablets, laptop computers, and other rechargeable devices could be charged at designated charging stations. 

Soon after electricity was cut to the community, the first sub-stations were activated to maintain critical infrastructure. Water continued to be pumped, the hospital remained in operation, emergency responders remained in service, and the public even had one store to purchase necessities from. This supermarket was essential for those who’s batteries were dead or neglected to stock necessities.

Before the large portable generators restored power, the community was provided with ample ice, and other support services in order to minimize the stress of an extended power disruption. We must not ignore the fact that we have been blessed beyond measure, Our situation could have been far worse. 

If it were not for expensive outside intervention, we all would still be without power for the foreseeable future. Without power to pump water to our homes, most water systems can only provide 2 to 4 days of water to their communities. Without these large generators, our hospital and emergency services would also have been jeopardized. Those stores and fuel stations without their own emergency generators would need to shut down without grid power. What resources you have on hand would be all you have without outside assistance.

My personal take-aways on this event were many. I learned that my emergency solar backup generator could be charged with its folding solar panels even on overcast and hazy days. Most of my gizmos remained charged. Likewise, my solar outdoor security lights charged well and were brought inside at night for lighting.

Maintaining my refrigerator and freezer during the power outage were another matter entirely. Thankfully, power was restored before my backup batteries were exhausted. I learned that refrigeration requires either a large array of solar panels, or a gas/propane generator. Personally, I hate the thought of feeding these power-hungry beasts, and will take measures to cut their umbilical-cord during future power outages. When practical, I will pull everything from the freezer to be canned for long term storage on unrefrigerated shelves. They will be replaced by ice trays to cool my refrigerator when power goes out again. As per refrigerated items, I will store only fermented, pickled and cured items; in moderation. We often forget that fresh grocery items are still alive. Many fresh vegetables, especially root crops, can be maintained in bowls of fresh water; and many will even shoot roots as the plants attempt to regrow.

I will build an outdoor cook-station with an overhead tarp for extended disruptions in rainy weather. I prefer the unrestrained space of outdoor cooking to the cramped confines of my living-room fireplace.

The gas/propane generator that sat in its box for the past year will finally be assembled and prepared for the next event. I will be stocking propane for long-term storage because gasoline goes bad after a few months, and might last a year if treated properly. Propane lasts many years as long as tank integrity is maintained.

Considering our new national energy policies, extended power outages and rolling blackouts may not be isolated to disastrous events like fires, flooding, storms, earthquakes and tsunamis. Power disruptions may become a way of life.

Be thankful that our community was blessed to experience this event. Pacific Power has closed its emergency charging stations now that large generators have restored our electrical grid. Once again we are all on our own. Many residents of Del Norte County will go about their daily lives as if nothing happened. Some will cherish lessons learned and prepare for the next events.

Post your own lessons in the comments section, and share your tips with the rest of our community.

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