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.