Wildfire threat sparks PG&E to inspect Northern California equipment, lines ahead of fall winds

With another concerning wildfire season looming and facing blame over last year’s Kincade Fire, Pacific Gas & Electric is throwing more firepower at efforts to avert another disaster caused by its faulty equipment and sparks in its lines.

Over the last few weeks, the embattled Northern California utility company has brought in helicopters, drones, infrared cameras and additional on-foot safety inspectors to look over 100,000 miles of power lines from Bakersfield north to Humboldt and Trinity counties.

Still, its best weapon against a repeat of causing home-destroying wildfires to date is simply shutting off the power, PG&E officials insist.

But tell that to the thousands of Sonoma, Marin, Napa, Mendocino, Lake and Solano business owners, local governments and residents who already feel the pain of COVID-19-related shutdowns and face a troublesome fire forecast just weeks away. Surviving a crisis takes on new meaning on many fronts for many residents and businesses that have been forced to endure the onslaught of power shutdowns and now have an economic cloud hanging over their heads.

“Our goal this time with power shutoff events is to make them shorter, smarter and smaller,” PG&E spokeswoman Deanna Contreras told the Business Journal. “We realize the devastating impact these wildfires have had on these communities.

For starters, the utility has pledged to schedule the power shutoffs for half days instead of full days. It has also nearly doubled its fleet of helicopters from 35 to 65 contracted out to view and correct the lines for trouble spots. It has also promised to affect one third fewer electricity customers at a time during the outages by selecting smaller sections at a time.

“I’m glad they figured out how to isolate the grid,” said Natalie Cilurzo, co-owner and president of the Russian River Brewery.

With its home base in Windsor, Cilurzo has already rented a generator and placed it on the property going into late summer. She even priced them, but with a hefty price tag of about $750,000, renting turned out to be a better option.

“And I’d say 12 hours (for outages) is better for a beer manufacturer than 24,” she said.

It’s not like anything has come easy for Sonoma County businesses over the last few years.

The brewery has shifted its business model to accommodate the lack of in-person customers with more of an emphasis in wholesale, take-out and direct retail because of the coronavirus outbreak. Wholesale alone constitutes 65% of its business.

Wildfire threats and their subsequent power outages pose yet more stumbling blocks.

Resilience has been key

“I feel for business,” Windsor Town Manager Ken McNab told the Business Journal. “It’s really a lot to ask anyone to go through. It’s one more challenge they’ve had to overcome.”

During last fall’s fire, the town was evacuated and power was shut down.

McNab said the local government is lining up all the agencies to prepare for what could result in another disastrous fall. The local jurisdiction is also hosting a virtual town hall meeting Aug. 19 to help business prepare.

The city’s manager was reminded what time of year it is by the roar of the helicopters overhead and the recent installation of a back-up generator at the utility substation north of town.

McNab is waiting to see how the utility company’s efforts will pay off.

PG&E just wrapped up last week its pre-inspection of the distribution lines, which run lower and through more urban neighborhoods. It started safety inspections of the transmission lines in the rural areas this week. Those will go on through August.

Linemen are reviewing all the components including the cross-arms, insulators and footings. They’re also required to ensure vegetation and trees are trimmed to allow buffers 12- to 15-feet from power lines, with the idea of maintaining a 4-foot clearance at all times.

“More than half the territory is at high risk of wildfire,” Contreras said.

Red flags have gone up

Although Cal Fire now says the fire season never ends, the particularly risky period comes from late summer into the early fall.

And this year, it may be a particularly dangerous time. This is according to a July 22 report released by the National Interagency Coordination Center in Boise, Idaho on the upcoming fire season for the West.

Warmer and drier conditions provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are expected to clash with a building La Nina, which is a tropical weather phenomenon off the shores of South America. With that come “wind events” — not a welcome visitor to the North Bay and beyond with its lengthy list of devastating wildfires. The names have been etched into our vernacular — Tubbs, Atlas and Kincade, to name a few.

The agency’s stakeholders including NOAA, the U.S. Forest Service and Cal Fire have predicted Northern California and southwest Oregon to get hit hard with the fire threat.

“There’s a drought in the good part of the West, including Northern California,” said Bryan Henry, a spokesman with the Forest Service, adding that some pockets of the West are experiencing “the fifth driest soils on record in the past 100 years.”

“It could be quite busy in California. We are concerned, and the reason for that concern is there’s a good grass crop grown in lower- to mid elevations. It’s fully dried with a La Nina developing that brings more frequent wind events,” Henry summarized.

Fires have sparked alarm bells for Cal Fire

Cal Fire has already responded to 4,465 wildfires covering over 59,000 acres in the state as of July 26. In comparison, the state’s leading fire agency answered calls during the same period last year to 3,340 wildfires.

“We’ve had 401 fires in one week,” Cal Fire Deputy Director Nick Schuler told the Business Journal.

And the job is only getting tougher by the minute. The coronavirus outbreak has presented some challenges for the firefighters in how they eat and where they congregate in their social distancing mandate.

Cal Fire is monitoring the measures PG&E is making to prevent disastrous firestorms. There’s the 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County, which as the deadliest fire in the state’s history produced an aftermath resembling an atomic bomb blast leveling the town of Paradise due to faulty utility equipment. In that same year, the Carr Fire outside Redding had its “firenado,” with its heart-wrenching story of a grandfather losing three members of his family. The 2017 Tubbs Fire in Sonoma County demolished the Coffee Park neighborhood.

No room for ’whack-a-mole’ solutions

And after Cal Fire announced July 16 it had determined the Kincade Fire that roared northeast of Geyserville was caused by PG&E’s “electrical transmission lines” last year, a lawsuit against the utility on behalf of fire victims coincided with the finding.

The suit filed by Welty Weaver & Currie, among other firms, alleges the fire was ignited by a high-voltage transmission line that threatened the towns of Windsor, Healdsburg and Geyserville.

The claimants include the Mayacama Golf Course, Stuhlmuller Vineyards, Christopher Creek Winery and H2 Hotel.

“PG&E’s safety record is an abomination, and its continuing practice of putting profit before people reinforces that conclusion,” attorney Jack Weaver said.

When asked if he was impressed at all by the measures PG&E was making to avoid such a catastrophic event going into the high fire season, Weaver was blunt.

“No. It’s their responsibility to provide safe power,” he said. “They need to have safe equipment that can function during windstorms.”

PG&E’s concessions now appear to Weaver as a little too late for all the catch-up from years of neglect the utility company needs to accomplish to fix its “aging infrastructure,” he contends.

He equates PG&E’s reaction now to applying a bunch of Band-aids to a gaping wound that’s festered for years.

Weaver knows first-hand of the devastation. Shortly after the fire, he rescued his mother’s 110-pound Bernese Mountain dog that returned home. The reunion that showed Weaver returning to his parent’s home and discovering the dog running up to greet him netted five million views on social media.

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