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Lights Out 

An extended SCE “public safety power shutoff,” PSPS, made Thanksgiving more of an endurance test than a feast for tens of thousands of people, including most residents of the Santa Monica Mountains. The power went off on Wednesday evening and didn’t come back on until Thursday night at the earliest, with some residents still in the dark until Friday night. For those in the Woolsey Fire burn zone it was the second Thanksgiving in three years without electricity. A barrage of contradictory text notifications before and after the shutdown did little to help people caught in the blackout to plan or even know when to expect the power to be restored. 

Because the shutoffs were so widespread, most cell service and almost all cable-based and voice-over-internet phone communication was also down, leaving many in a “black hole” without electricity or phones. The wind velocity exceeded initial forecasts, making the fire risk that initiated the shutdown a real threat, but the communications failure negated the benefit of the shutdown. If a wildfire had threatened any of the affected communities there would have been no way to notify residents, other than door-to-door efforts. There are calls for an investigation into why telecom companies like Verizon and Sprint were unprepared for the shutoff, and failed to provide battery back-up or at least to provide C.O.W’s,—cells on wheels—for the affected areas.

California’s push to eliminate fossil fuels is at odds with the power providers’ power to shut electricity off for days out of concern that their inadequately maintained equipment might spark a fire. PSPS doesn’t protect the people from wildfire as much as it protects the power companies from lawsuits. The only way we are going to successfully replace gas ranges and gas powered vehicles with electric is if that future is powered by residential solar and community micro-grids, not power monopolies that put profits above the needs of customers and the environment, and are so poorly organized that they sent notices of the power outage days after the power was finally restored. 

Fire weather is unfortunately still with us, with a stubbornly persistent ridge of high pressure and no chance of rain in the forecast for at least the next week. That means another round of PSPS could also be in our future. Now would be a good time to stock up on batteries and flashlights.

The holidays got off to a rough start for the powerless, but despite the red flag fire warning and the lack of electricity, this holiday season seems more optimistic than last. Hanukkah came early this year—the festival of lights, with its message of hope and miracles, ends on December 6, just as Christmas season gets fully underway. 

Although the inevitable tide of holiday bric-a-brac swamped store shelves before summer was entirely over, and provided a surreal background of flashing lights and Jingle Bells during back-to-school-shopping and Halloween season, there’s a real feeling of festivity in the air this year. People are making plans, however cautiously, to visit family and see friends. Caution is still needed—COVID-19 is still a threat, but there’s hope, too, as we enter the third year of the pandemic. 

We are celebrating the holiday season here at TNT with one of our favorite things: books. TNT staff have been busy assembling part two of our annual guide to new works by local authors and the best new books of local interest. 

We’re also taking a look at King Tides and sea level rise in this issue’s Discovery section, but the flip side of the highest tides of the year is more benign, a look at the hidden world of the intertidal zone during afternoon minus tides this weekend. That makes this the perfect time for a winter sunset walk. 

The holidays are joyful and exciting but they can be overwhelming. Sometimes taking time for a walk is a necessity for mental as well as physical health. For people grappling with loss or depression the holidays can be a challenging and difficult time, instead of a time for celebration. We all need to be aware of the needs of our family and friends and of ourselves. It’s OK not to celebrate, to take time out and step back. If joy is out of reach, we can still offer comfort to one another, and peace, and goodwill. 

Stay safe, be well.

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