SLO County is bracing for wildfire — and workers are clearing an evacuation path
Details of the well-publicized plan by PG&E to shut off electricity to customers during high fire-danger days were laid out to a Central Coast audience Saturday in Cambria.
The main takeaway? If this summer’s weather gets brutally hot, dry and windy, your electricity could be shut off for days.
Steve Crawford, a senior PG&E public safety specialist in the wildfire operations division told the 225 attendees at the meeting sponsored by the Cambria Fire Safe Focus Group that the hot, dry, windy weather doesn’t even have to be within San Luis Obispo County. Transmission lines carry power from generating stations in the Central Valley to this county, and electricity from Diablo Canyon is sent to the valley to be distributed statewide.
“Any of us, anywhere in the county, has the potential to get our power shut off due to wind events in other areas of the state, as far as one and a half hours away.... because that power is generated there,” he said.
When Paso Robles has “red flag” weather conditions in summer and fall, the coast of San Luis Obispo County often is cooler, possibly even draped in fog. But both areas — along with the rest of the county — could be without electricity from PG&E if, as planned, the utility proactively shuts off power to help prevent wildfires caused by live electrical wires and other infrastructure in tinder-dry areas.
Since the disastrous Camp Fire last year, in which 85 people died and the Northern California town of Paradise was destroyed, PG&E and other electrical utility firms in the state have been under orders to ramp up their fire-prevention efforts.
That includes the option to shut off power to those major transmission lines, which the power company is calling “Public Safety Power Shutoff,” as well as the distribution lines that carry the electricity from the main lines to cities, towns, neighborhoods and remote areas.
What factors into decision to cut power?
“No single factor drives a Public Safety Power Shutoff, as each situation is unique,” PG&E spokesman Mark Mesesan said in an email interview.
The decision involves many different criteria, such as:
• A red-flag warning issued by the National Weather Service.
• Low humidity levels (generally 20 percent and below).
• A forecast of sustained winds generally above 25 mph and gusts in excess of approximately 45 mph, depending on location and site specific conditions such as temperature, terrain and local climate.
• Condition of dry fuel on the ground and moisture content of live vegetation.
• And “on the ground, real-time observations from PG&E’s Wildfire Safety Operations Center and observations from PG&E field crews,” he said.
Other factors, such as an active local fire or wildfire or a specific safety condition, such as a downed wire, could also trigger a shutoff order, Mesesan said.
Before, during and after a shutoff
Crawford said PG&E hopes to have enough advance notice to inform its customers 48 hours ahead of time, by robocalls, texts, even some emails and — especially for those who are medically dependent on electricity — individual contacts or phone calls if a power shutoff is expected.
PG&E would issue another round of alerts, perhaps modifying the scope of the outage, about 24 hours before the planned shutoff, if ongoing monitoring of forecasts and on-the-ground conditions indicates that the shutoff is still necessary. Then, just before the shutoff, or from two to three hours before it, Crawford said, a final notification would go out saying the power will be shut off. PG&E would continue the alerts throughout the outage, and will update a website in real time, he said.
Once the wind event is over, and all the lines and infrastructure have been inspected, Crawford said, “We’ll tell you when the power comes back on,” which won’t happen at the same time for everybody.
It will be more like the reverse of a rolling blackout, with some lines inspected and cleared, and power restored to customers in those areas. Then the crews will repeat those actions in the next areas.
PG&E’s other actions
Postcards have gone out to customers whose emergency information needs to be submitted or updated; for details, go to www.pge- com/mywildfirealerts. For other details, call 866-743- 6589.
Crawford said PG&E has “been really good about telling you that we might need to shut off your power, but we haven’t done a really good job of telling you what we’re trying to do so we don’t have to shut the power off.”
The commission’s fire-threat map includes two areas of concern, so-called Tier 2, in which the threat is elevated, and Tier 3, in which the threat is considered extreme. Crawford said Tier 3 areas are where “there’s electrical infrastructure and a wildland environment that don’t get along... with a high probability of ignition if something electrical could fail, break, spark or arc and cause a fire in a bad fuel area with bad, bad, bad topography.”
The map is at www.cpuc.ca.gov/FireThreatMaps.
Among the map’s red-shaded Tier 3 zones are a wedge of Big Sur and some South County areas. Some other SLO County zones, such as along the coast and immediate valley areas, are Tier 2, marked in orange. Tier 3 areas have gotten the most advance-preparation attention, Crawford said, such as more intense safety inspections of every line and nearby trees, done in many areas by helicopters with high-tech LIDAR radar, because the use of drones wasn’t well received by the public.
Also, more expansive trimming of trees and brush around insulators and poles, repairs/replacement of basic infrastructure and removal of “reclosures” that try repeatedly to re-energize a line after falling limb or tree “grounds” the wire, and other actions.
“If we found something wrong” in the Tier 3 areas, he said, “we went out and fixed it.”
Some live trees, especially if they’re among 10 species “prone to fall over,” may also need to be removed if they’re too close to the infrastructure, Crawford said.
Crews are moving into the Tier 2 areas now, Crawford said, although some, such as Cambria, already have had the helicopter flyovers and other actions.
He said future preemptive work could include replacing some wood poles with steel ones, putting more space between some poles so they don’t hit each other if they fall, finding alternate power source (such as a solar/battery combination) for some single, remote accounts, such as distant agriculture wells.
Crawford said he couldn’t estimate how long it will take for all necessary work to be done in all areas, including Zone 1 (much lower threat), how much all those tasks will cost or who will pay for it all.