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

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.”

Report: California power company has resisted efforts to map risky power lines

portugal power lines wildfire
File photo of power lines near a wildfire in Portugal, 2012.

Following the Witch Creek, Guejito, and Rice Canyon fires that destroyed more than 1,300 homes and killed two people in Southern California in 2007, state officials began attempting to force the utility companies to produce maps designating areas where their power lines present the highest risk for starting wildfires. The three large fires in 2007 were sparked by issues with lines operated by San Diego Gas and Electric.

CAL FIRE has not released the causes of the huge fires that started in Northern California October 8 during very strong winds, but at about the same time firefighters were first responding to numerous fires, they also received multiple calls about fallen power lines and electrical transformers exploding. In the next week, the stock price of the company that provides electrical service for large areas of Northern California, Pacific Gas and Electric, dropped 22 percent.

According to the Mercury News, PG&E has been fighting the efforts to map powerline risk areas since 2007. Below is an excerpt from their article:

A review of the mapping project by the Bay Area News Group shows that utilities have repeatedly asked to slow down the effort and argued as recently as July that, as PG&E put it, certain proposed regulations would “add unnecessary costs to construction and maintenance projects in rural areas.”

On Oct. 6, two days before the start of the deadliest outbreak of wildfires in California history, two administrative law judges assigned to oversee the project granted yet another delay at the request of PG&E and other utilities.

[…]

[PG&E] claimed there was no evidence that wildfires had been caused by poles not being able to withstand high winds.

The Northern California fires killed at least 43 people and destroyed about 8,900 structures.

Dr. Janice Coen, a Project Scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado ran fine-scale simulations (horizontal grid spacing of 370 meters) analyzing the wind during the time the fires started. Her research showed significantly higher surface wind speeds than previously thought — 75 to 90 mph just upwind of the major fires.

California law dictates that power lines are supposed to be able to withstand 56 mph.

Officials investigating the roles of wind and power lines in Northern California wildfires

There is no doubt that after numerous wildfires started Sunday night October 8 north of San Francisco the very strong winds caused them to spread so rapidly that there is no way firefighters could put them out before they grew large. There are reports that the Tubbs Fire between Santa Rosa and Napa burned about 20,000 acres in a few hours.

Many power lines blew down or sparked as electrical conductors brushed together in Sonoma and Napa Counties.

According to the Mercury News:

Emergency dispatchers in Sonoma County received multiple calls of power lines falling down and electrical transformers exploding. In all, according to a review of emergency radio traffic by the Bay Area News Group, Sonoma County dispatchers sent out fire crews to at least 10 different locations across the county over a 90-minute period starting at 9:22 pm to respond to 911 calls and other reports of sparking wires and problems with the county’s electrical system amid high winds.

Officials have not released the causes of most of the fires, but the stock price of Pacific Gas and Electric which supplies electrical power to much of the area dropped 22 percent last week.

Stock price of PG&E
Stock price of PG&E, last two years. CNBC graphic.

On Monday the Cliff Mass Weather and Climate Blog, an excellent source for in-depth analysis of weather events, looked at the conditions that led to the extreme winds when the fires started. Here is an excerpt:

…Although there have been a lot of media reports about windy conditions, few have described the extreme, often unprecedented, nature of the winds on Sunday night and Monday morning (October 8/9th).   Some have even mocked PG&Es claims of hurricane-force winds, suggesting wind speeds of 30-40 mph.

Let’s clarify a few things.  There was a wide range of winds that night, with the strongest winds on ridge tops and on the upper lee slopes of terrain.  Some winds was startling.

For example, at 10:30 PM on 9 Oct 2017 the wind gusted to 96 mph on a 3400 foot peak NE of Geyersville, about 20 miles NNW of downtown Santa Rosa. They reported sustained 74 knots (85 mph).  Those are hurricane force winds (sustained of 64 knots or more).

At the Santa Rosa RAWS station (U.S Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management) at 576 ft elevation, the wind accelerated rapidly Sunday night to 68 mph.

wind forecast northern california fires
Desert Research Institute’s forecast model (WRF) at very high resolution (2-km grid spacing). This is their 6-hour forecast for sustained surface winds at 11 PM Sunday October 8. Click to enlarge.

San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E) is still battling over who will pay for the destruction, the company or their customers, caused by the Witch Creek, Guejito, and Rice Canyon fires in 2007 that started from issues with their power lines. The fires destroyed more than 1,300 homes in southern California, killed two people, and caused massive evacuations. The Witch Creek Fire alone, which started near Santa Ysabel, burned 197,990 acres.

In 2009 SDG&E proposed to implement a system of completely turning off power preemptively to areas where very strong winds are predicted.

Whitetail Fire in South Dakota burns toward Mount Coolidge

(UPDATED at 4:50 p.m. MST March 9, 2017)

The reported size of the Whitetail Fire in Custer State Park in South Dakota increased today t0 249 acres, in contrast to the earlier estimate of 100 to 150 acres. The change is due partially to better mapping, but primarily to large burnout operations to tie in the edge of the fire to firebreaks such as roads or natural barriers.

The cool, damp weather today facilitated quite a bit of progress toward establishing a fireline around the blaze. Containment increased on Thursday and a spokesperson for the fire said some firefighting resources would be released at the end of the shift.

It turns out that contracted Type 1 helicopters were never ordered for the fire, and the National Guard Blackhawk helicopter was not needed today.

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( Updated at 8:35 a.m. MST March 9, 2017)

The Whitetail Fire in Custer State Park in South Dakota is still estimated at 100 to 150 acres.

The weather on Thursday will help the firefighters, with much lower temperatures and the possibility of precipitation. The high temperature in the area of the fire Thursday will be around 40. The relative humidity will rise throughout the day, reaching 90 percent by sunset as the chance of precipitation increases from 23 percent to 34 percent.

The temperature at a nearby weather station got down to 18 degrees Wednesday night. The most pressing issue for firefighters was probably keeping the plumbing on their fire engines from freezing.

The 3-D map below shows in red the very approximate, rough location of the fire. The exact perimeter is unknown. A spokesperson for the fire we talked with did not know if the fire has reached Highway 87, which is still closed north of Blue Bell Lodge.

map Whitetail Fire
Map showing in red the APPROXIMATE location of the Whitetail Fire as of early morning on March 9, 2017. The burn scars from the 1988 Galena and 1990 Cicero Peak Fires are visible. Click to enlarge.

A firefighter we talked with Wednesday night said the spread of the fire was “hung up” in rocky terrain and discontinuous fuel. The fire is burning in the footprint of the 2004 Cicero Peak Fire, which is the reason for the lack of vegetation to easily carry the fire, especially on flat or downhill runs. If it keeps spreading to the east or northeast and progresses out of the Cicero Peak Fire it would be in older vegetation for a short while before it moves into the scar from the Galena Fire that burned 16,788 acres in 1988.

On Wednesday a Blackhawk helicopter from the National Guard assisted firefighters on the ground by dropping water. Late in the day a fixed wing air attack aircraft arrived that provided eyes in the sky and can help direct the helicopters.

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(Originally published at 9 p.m. MST, March 8, 2017)

In March and April the Black Hills of South Dakota usually have a two-month prelude to the summer fire season which gets going later — around July. During these two months the snow is usually gone, the temperatures rise, RH drops, the fuels are drying, and it can be windy. Beginning in May greenup occurs and slows things down until the herbaceous vegetation cures in mid-summer.

Whitetail Fire South Dakota
A patch of snow on the Whitetail Fire.

The prelude conditions were present today when a tree fell into a powerline and ignited a fire just west of Custer State Park near the intersection of Lower French Creek Road and Whitetail Road. It was reported at 1:20 p.m. MST; two minutes later the S-NPP VIIRS I Band sensor on a polar orbiting satellite had a single hit, detecting the fire.

During the afternoon a nearby weather station recorded a temperature of 55 degrees, RH in the high 20’s, and sustained southwest to west winds of 10 to 14 mph gusting at 18 to 30. As the strong wind blew the smoke toward the northeast it stayed close to the ground until it rose and mixed with a narrow band of fairly low clouds whose southern edge was right at the fire. From a distance the smoke was difficult to see because of the clouds which seemed to stay in about the same location for hours, in spite of the strong winds.

In the size-up given by the initial attack Incident Commander (IC) about 20 minutes after his arrival he said the estimated size was 15 to 20 acres. In addition to requesting an additional hand crew and a dozer, he asked for single engine air tankers. Told those were not available he requested a large air tanker. After a while the dispatcher came back and said it would take 24 hours to get a large air tanker. He said, well, keep that order in, we can always cancel it. There was discussion about ordering large Type 1 helicopters. Later the IC ordered additional engines, dozers, and hand crews, as well as a Type 3 Incident Management Team.

Whitetail Fire South Dakota
A South Dakota state hand crews gets their gear together after arriving at the Whitetail Fire.

There were about half a dozen structures, including residences, within a quarter mile of the fire’s origin, and the wind was driving it toward Mount Coolidge, at 6,023 feet above sea level it was 1,000 feet higher than the point of origin and 1.3 miles away. On the peak is a fire lookout tower made mostly of stone and there are several electronic sites.

Soon after it started, the fire spread into Custer State Park.

As of 8 p.m. MST on Wednesday the fire had not reached the top of Coolidge.

The size estimate we were able to obtain at 9 p.m was 100 to 150 acres.

Wednesday night Highway 87 in Custer State Park was closed from Blue Bell Lodge to the intersection of Hwy 16A.

Continue reading “Whitetail Fire in South Dakota burns toward Mount Coolidge”

Creating Defensible Space Around Utility Poles

Above: The power pole hazard mitigation crew’s sawyer flush cuts a palo verde stump.

By Tom Story

“As Arizona’s largest utility, there are fire risks we have to manage,” said Wade Ward, Fire Mitigation Specialist for Arizona Public Service (APS). “The primary goal of fire mitigation is to prevent fire from ever happening. The second is to provide safe and reliable electricity to the communities APS serves.  Just as important is the ability to provide for firefighter safety around our system in the event of a fire”, Mr. Ward continued.  “With five thousand miles of transmission and twenty-eight thousand miles of distribution it is hard not to have our system affected by wildland fire.  When this happens, APS’s priority is providing a safe environment for crews to work in”.

defensible space power poles
In Cave Creek, AZ; Wade Ward, Fire Mitigation Specialist for Arizona Public Service, sizes up a palo verde tree slated for removal as part of the APS Defensible Space Around Poles program.

Mr. Ward knows fire (he joined APS after his fire career at the Prescott Fire Department) and he has seen factors like drought, climate change and forest management set the stage for larger and more powerful wildland fires.  “It is becoming more evident that due to extended drought over the past decade forest and vegetation ecosystems have been stressed from the lack of regular moisture compounded by shorter drier winters and longer warmer summers,” Mr. Ward said.

APS sends out inspectors to identify hazardous vegetation in violation of its safety and reliability clearance standards as well as violations of the National Fire Code and the Urban Wildland Interface Code (which state that a utility with equipment attached to the pole must clear all vegetation 10 feet in all directions including 10 feet from the ground). The area around the pole is cleared by work crews to create defensible space.  “There are approximately 70 thousand poles within our system that we will have on a three year return cycle to maintain Defensible Space Around Poles (DSAP)” said Mr. Ward.

defensible space power poles
Other crew members cut up and feed the branches into a chipper.

The clearing is being done using manual methods (including chain saws, string trimmers and other hand tools) and where approved is followed by the application of herbicide in compliance with Environmental Protection Agency’s Integrated Vegetation Management practices. APS has prioritized the treatment of subject poles by utilizing data derived from a risk assessment done across the state. Mr. Ward continued; “It is a part of our core values at APS Forestry to manage vegetation and the environment by balancing benefits to create healthy forests and safe reliable energy”.

Mr. Ward finished his remarks noting, “In 2016 we created 110 acres of defensible space around the state of Arizona. One pole at a time”.

defensible space power poles
Putting the finishing touches on the cleanup around one of the Arizona Public Service power poles in Cave Creek, AZ.

Massachusetts man indicted for planting incendiary devices at powerline

One of the devices started a fire March 31.

This follows up on the first report of the incident on April 1, 2016.

Below is an excerpt from an article in the Lowell [Massachusetts] Sun:

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“A Chelmsford man accused of planting explosive devices on National Grid power lines in Tyngsboro [Mass.] in March was indicted by a federal grand jury on Tuesday.

Danny Kelly, 61, of Chelmsford, was indicted on a charge of malicious destruction of property by fire. He has been held without bail since his arrest after Tyngsboro firefighters on March 30 responded to Locust Avenue near National Grid power lines for a brush fire that officials suspect was caused by one of five incendiary devices found at the scene.

A note found at the scene explained that the devices were designed to cause disruption to power from Canada to the United States.

Investigators focused on Kelly because in a 2004 case he was convicted of cutting 18 phone and cable lines in an extortion attempt against Nortel Networks, his former employer.

Kelly pleaded guilty to extortion and in 2006, a federal judge sentenced him to five years probation, ordered him to undergo mental-health treatment, possess no destructive devices and pay $378,041 in restitution.

As part of his 2004 case, Kelly was evaluated by Dr. Roger H. Gray, who performed a forensic psychological evaluation. Gray diagnosed Kelly as having symptoms of bipolar and paranoid-personality disorders.

After the incendiary devices were discovered on the National Grid power lines, a raid of Kelly ‘s 26 School St. home by the FBI and other officials yielded chemicals that could be used to make the pipe-bomb-type devices…”