Imagine scorching hot, dry, windy days in the northern region of San Luis Obispo County, when — as a last resort to prevent wildfires — PG&E shuts off the electricity there. That could also be the case in cooler, damper coastal areas, such as Cambria and San Simeon.
It could happen, according to statements made by PG&E officials. So residents need to prepare now for what may be more frequent power outages that last longer than a coastal resident might expect.
Late last month, the California Public Utilities Commission approved PG&E’s first state-mandated wildfire prevention plan.
Embedded in that plan were new standards for PG&E’s ability and responsibility to turn off the electricity in power lines during “Red Flag Weather” and other times when conditions are critically dry, windy and/or hot. Welcome to the “Public Safety Power Shutoff,” or planned blackouts in which, to prevent wildfires, the utility company can shut off the power to the grids in small or large swaths of terrain (including cities and towns), rather than waiting for the more common routine of falling trees and lines or malfunctioning transformers and other equipment.
Outgoing CPUC president Mick Picker had an ominous warning: “Given the changes that we’re seeing in weather and the changes that we are seeing in fire fuels … nobody who lives in wildfire hazard zones should count on (getting) a warning … or should count on having reliable electricity.”
He also said, “All of us who live in those areas have to prepare for wildfires assuming that you may not get adequate warning of outages either from the utility (or) from your local emergency responders.”
Those prolonged outages could be especially dangerous for and hard on the disabled and handicapped, poor, elderly and others who are unable to afford backup power sources, such as full-house generators or solar power with backup batteries.
For most people who live along the county’s coastlines, those exceptionally hot, dry conditions are rare. But that doesn’t mean they’ll be immune to power shutoffs.
While “customers in high fire areas are more likely to be affected … we’re not able to say there are specific areas that would be immune,” according to PG&E spokesman Mark Mesesen. “More distribution lines are involved, as well as transmission lines. Every one of our 5 million customers could have power shut off as a last resort to prevent imminent fire ignition.”
And there’ll likely be a time lag between when the immediate danger decreases and the electricity goes back on, he said.
“We have to inspect the lines manually, to make sure when we turn the power back on, it’s not going to create another arc that could create an issue … we still have to ensure that our equipment is not going to start a fire after the power starts again,” he said.
He said the utility firm is advising customers to “prepare for up to four or five days” without power, “although we are trying to reduce that.”
The “whole action is a last resort” for public and property safety, Mesesen said, based on “ground conditions, weather, onsite observations” and other factors.
“We’re worried about it because we could see people’s power shut off not for a day or two but potentially a week … It’s a good thing … unless you’re impacted,” Gov. Gavin Newsome has said.
Meanwhile, PG&E is expanding its network of weather stations and high definition cameras to improve the company’s ability to predict and respond to extreme wildfire danger, as part of its community wildfire safety program.
“By the end of 2019, PG&E plans to have at least 600 weather stations and 100 high-definition cameras in high fire-threat areas,” the company said in a press release.
That would be an increase of 200 weather stations, in addition to the 200 already in place. The new installations are designed to provide enhanced meteorological data. PG&E meterologists will feed the data from the new stations to the firm’s Wildfire Safety Operations Team, which can use the information to help make decisions, such as launching a public safety power shutoff incident.
“PG&E will carefully review a combination of criteria, including predictions of strong winds and very low humidity levels,” before the decisions are made, the release explained.
San Luis Obispo County is among the 37 counties that already have the weather stations, according to the release, as are neighboring counties of Monterey, Kern and Santa Barbara.
However, SLO County is not among the counties in which the high definition cameras already have been installed. Meanwhile, PG&E is taking other actions to be better prepared, including trimming more trees more severely around the electric lines and poles and low-altitude helicopter fly-overs to inspect all power lines, especially in vulnerable areas.
Bankruptcy, lawsuits and more
The CPUC required PG&E and other power companies in the state to increase wildfire-prevention actions in the wake of the disastrous fires in 2017 and 2018. In the wake, survivors and others filed lawsuits and PG&E declared bankruptcy.
PG&E recently admitted that its equipment sparked the 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County that left 85 people dead and destroyed the town of Paradise. Cal Fire investigators also said several of the 2017 North Bay fires were sparked by PG&E allowing trees to grow too close to power lines.
That’s another issue that hits close to home in Cambria, where thousands of homes are built within a rare native forest of aging Monterey pines and other trees and brush.
A PG&E representative will be at the FireSafe Focus Group’s forum on June 29 to answer questions about the Public Safety Power Shutoff and other aspects of the company’s attempts to reduce wildfires.