What California and PG&E are doing to prevent wildfires and save lives

Imagine this: Your home is in the path of a wildfire and you’ve been ordered to evacuate. You grab your keys, load up the pets, start the car that’s already been packed with emergency supplies … only to realize the garage door won't open because the power it out. You try to open it manually by pulling the bypass cord, but lack the strength.

Tragically, that’s what happened to at least five of the 44 victims of last year’s devastating Wine Country fires. According to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, the victims ranged in age from 80 to 101; two were found inside their parked cars, others inside their homes or near their garages.

A garage door may sound like a little thing — a detail so easily overlooked it’s not even included in some evacuation checklists — but there were reports not only of deaths, but also of survivors who managed to escape only because they were able to flag down passers-by to help them raise their unwieldy garage doors.

In the aftermath of the Wine Country fires, one Northern California lawmaker has introduced a state bill that would require garage door manufacturers to offer a battery pack as a backup when selling new units.

We have another idea: Check and see whether you can open your door manually. If you can’t, have a battery pack installed.

And as we face the possibility of another horrific wildfire season, make other preparations, too: Learn your evacuation routes, keep your cell phones charged, your car full of gas and in good working order and have essentials — including medication, important documents, food and water for you and your pets — packed inside your car.

It would be far better, of course, not to have to escape a fire in the first place, which is where prevention efforts come in, both on a personal level — which includes maintaining defensible space around your home — and on community and regional levels.

There are a couple of advances on that front:

Last week, PG&E announced it will proactively shut down power lines “in areas where extreme fire conditions are occurring.”

That’s a measure PG&E has refused to take in the past; it’s claimed it would be too great a threat to public safety.

“These actions affect first responders and the operation of critical facilities such as hospitals, schools, water pumps and other essential services …” the company said in a statement to KQED.

Yet other utilities, including Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric, have “depowered” when high winds, high temperatures and low humidity pose extreme fire danger, in order to prevent downed lines from sparking a fire.

That makes sense. While a power outage has serious drawbacks, if it saves lives and prevents millions of dollars in property damage, it’s well worth it.

To prepare for fire season PG&E is taking other steps as well:

  • Establishing a Wildfire Safety Operations Center to monitor wildfire risks and coordinate prevention and response efforts with first responders;

  • Adding PG&E staff to respond to wildfires, protect poles, power lines and other electrical equipment during fires;

  • Installing a network of PG&E-owned and operated weather stations across the service area;

  • Adopting new standards to keep trees and limbs farther away from power lines.

This makes business sense for PG&E, which faces huge financial liability in connection with the Wine Country fires — so much so that it suspended dividend payments to stockholders last year.

Assistance also is coming from another source: the federal government. The $1.3 trillion budget signed by President Trump last week included an additional $2 billion per year for 10 years to fight wildfires, which means money to fight fires will no longer have to be borrowed from the U.S. Forest Service’s budget for fire prevention.

That's been standard practice up until now. Due to the severity of recent fire seasons, the Forest Service had to spend more than half of its total annual budget on fighting fires, which meant dipping into other accounts, including those for clearing brush and dead trees.

One disappointment: The full amount of the additional funding doesn’t kick in until 2020; this fiscal year, there will only be an additional $500 million in the federal budget for firefighting efforts.

Still, with an increased budget, the Forest Service should be better able to plan for fire prevention. That’s especially important in California, where dying forests pose a major fire hazard; there are more than 100 million dead trees in the Sierra Nevada, and scientists are warning of the potential for more huge wildfires.

Closer to home, dead pines remain a big concern in Cambria, though Supervisor Bruce Gibson, whose district includes Cambria, said the community has done an impressive job of focusing on prevention and preparation.

“Folks are staying safe, clearing defensible space and getting ready to respond if there is an emergency,” he said.

That includes getting familiar with evacuation routes, having emergency kits packs and ready to go — and checking those garage doors.

This includes contributions from The Sacramento Bee Editorial Board.

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