California utility latest to talk power shutoff when conditions ripe for wildfires

A firefighter works a blaze in Northern California. Photo courtesy CAL FIRE.

Above:  A firefighter works a blaze in Northern California during the fires in Wine Country in October, 2017. Photo courtesy CAL FIRE. 

A San Francisco-based utility provider that has come under scrutiny in the aftermath of 2017’s California wildfires on Friday outlined a series of steps it says will reduce future fire risks — including preemptively cutting the power in areas facing high fire danger.

Pacific Gas and Electric Company is drafting guidelines to boost wildfire prevention, create new safety measures and harden the electric grid across many of the same areas devastated last year, the company said. PG&E provides utilities to a major swath of California, including Wine Country, which was ravaged by deadly fires in October.

Perhaps the most controversial proposal, a move toward preemptive power shutdowns coincides with conversations elsewhere in the state and across the country. Officials said they were refining protocols for shutting down power lines in “areas where extreme fire conditions are occurring.” They also vowed to implement “appropriate communications and resources to help inform, prepare and support” customers and communities.

The move is not without precedent or controversy.

San Diego Gas and Electric has cut power during red flag warnings and critical fire situations, hoping to prevent a utility-sparked blaze. The policy change came on the heels of the firestorm in 2007 that investigators blamed on power lines.  In December, the San Diego company cut power in some rural areas of the county, again triggering debate about fire prevention at the cost of isolating power-dependent swaths of the population who rely on electricity for communication, disaster preparation and even medical care.

Pat Hogan, PG&E senior vice president of electric operations, said the options were not ideal but remained necessary.

Per the Sacramento Bee newspaper: 

“We really view this as a last resort,” Hogan said. “It’s one public safety risk vs. another. We’re very cognizant that when we shut off the power, that creates a whole set of safety risks. You potentially impact hospitals, fire stations, police stations, traffic lights go out, garages don’t open.”

However, Hogan said “there are going to be times where the conditions on the ground are so extreme, that the potential for ignition, and the potential for spread if there was an ignition, is so high that we’re going to de-energize those lines.”

The utility, facing multiple investigations and the subject of multiple lawsuits and liability claims since October, also said it is planned to expand its weather forecasting ability by ramping up a network of company-owned weather stations.

The move is also similar to that of SDG&E that we reported on last year. 

Those tools will help inform an expanded staff of fire-focused personnel at a to-be created Wildfire Safety Operations Center that will monitor wildfire risks in real-time and coordinate prevention and response efforts with first responders, the company said.

Officials also said they would harden the electrical system by replacing wood utility poles with less-vulnerable ones and pre-treat infrastructure with fire retardant in high-risk areas.

PG&E officials said they are working with regional first responders and fire officials as the utility explores its next steps with the multi-pronged approach. The decisions are not in response to any legal trouble, officials maintained, but rather to address the ever-intensifying risks of climate change and “extreme weather events.”

“Our system and our mindset need to be laser-focused on working together to help prevent devastating wildfires like the ones in the North Bay in October and in Southern California in December from happening again, and in responding quickly and effectively if they do,” Hogan  said in a news release. “Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, which is what the Community Wildfire Safety Program is all about.”

Author: Jason Pohl

In addition to writing for Wildfire Today, Jason Pohl reports on public safety-related issues for The Arizona Republic and USA TODAY.

6 thoughts on “California utility latest to talk power shutoff when conditions ripe for wildfires”

  1. Now your messing around with the power grid??? These fires are being set for an agenda our own government. Why are there so many fires in rural areas and the frequency levels Red Flags being raised. There is something bigger problem coming our way and people are waking to this HUGE planetary system scientists don’t want us to know about PLANET X. These fires are intentionally set to drive people away from rural areas into the cities called ” ROUNDING UP “. Check for yourself pal you have a great view of this THING.

    1. Your an idiot! There are more brush and forest fires in rural areas because that’s where the brush and trees are.

  2. recently weve been seeing ads by PG&E (which many of us call Pacific Graft and Extortion )saying they are working closly with fire departments to help with power being cut to structure fires,and storm damage,thing is,most structure fires still get the response, PG&E have a ETA of 2 (or more) hours.ow is that “working closely”? PG&E also do everything they possibly can to stop people from being “off grid” including trying to make things like wind turbans illegal on private homes.they also have4 many rules again generators being used,rules beyond the safety guildlines for not putting the power back into the grid.which creates dangers for linemen and others,but if they start turning off power to areas with high winds forecast of occuring,people will lose frozen foods etc and i for one will sue them in a heartbeat.maily because i need my O2 equipment working at all times.

  3. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t. There is no winning this one! A judgment call and sleepless nights until the danger is over.

  4. So, if I’m on a well for my water (or irrigation), and my power to my well is turned off, we’re just gonna “Burn, Baby! Burn!” Oh yeah.

    1. Anybody living in a rural setting should have a backup generator especially for a well.
      Not just in case of fire but for any reason that your power may go down. Domestic water, livestock, irrigation and you can keep that Rocky Road from melting in your freezer as well as your well working

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