Infrastructure

Wildfire Nerve Center Will Serve as Eyes and Ears for Embattled Northern California Utility

On the heels of a catastrophic wildfire season and allegations that poor power line maintenance was the cause, Pacific Gas & Electric has opened a new facility dedicated to monitoring operations.

by Julie Johnson, The Press Democrat / May 9, 2018
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(TNS) — SAN FRANCISCO — In a room overlooking San Francisco Bay at PG&E headquarters, data analysts and fire experts now keep watch for wildfires across 70,000 square miles of northern and central California.

Here, in a new wildfire safety operations center opened Tuesday, a bank of screens streams the latest weather forecasts, wind reports and satellite images. The nerve center — behind two checkpoints in a highly secure PG&E building on Beale Street — was created to give the embattled utility company an edge anticipating the next catastrophic wildfire and mobilizing crews to protect people and equipment.

This is where PG&E decision-makers will initiate new protocols like shutting off power lines during wind storms when fire risk is high — a strategy the company didn’t employ in October when powerful winds buffeted the region and fires ignited in Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino, Lake, Solano and Yolo counties.

“As we monitor fire risks throughout our service territory, this is where key decisions are going to be made,” said Pat Hogan, PG&E senior vice president of electric operations said during a media tour of the new nerve center.

Cal Fire hasn’t completed its investigations into what caused six major fires that broke out late Oct. 8 and early Oct. 9, spokesman Scott McLean said Tuesday.

But PG&E is the target of more than 100 lawsuits blaming its power lines for igniting the infernos that destroyed more than 6,400 homes across the six counties, killed 44 people and caused at least $10 billion in insured losses.

Critics and litigants claim PG&E is liable, citing what they claim is poor power line maintenance and failures to prepare for high winds, which were predicted days in advance.

The company’s lawyers argue the fires were a result of a series of unprecedented weather events, including a multiyear drought, heavy rains that fostered extensive growth in brush and trees, record summer heat and a “high wind event” Oct. 8 and Oct. 9.

The utility also has filed a complaint against Sonoma County, claiming local government officials contributed to the destructive nature of the fires through what PG&E contends was inadequate urban planning and failures in emergency planning and lax enforcement of brush clearance rules, according to a document filed April 18 with the county. The claim reserves the right of PG&E lawyers to sue Sonoma County in the future.

PG&E is preparing to deal with a potentially staggering financial liability if it is held responsible for the wildfires in its service area, according to company executives addressing investors during an earnings call last week. The October firestorm has already cost the utility company upward of $50 million in one-time expenses such as replacing destroyed powerlines.

The new operations center is part of a multifaceted program developed by the investor-owned utility this year to address “the new normal of wildfire risks,” according to Hogan.

He and other PG&E spokespeople declined to say how much the operation center costs to run. Spokeswoman Andrea Menniti said the company is “continuing to scope out the costs.” PG&E can seek to recover costs incurred complying with fire safety requirements through the California Public Utilities Commission. It cannot, however, defray state-assigned liability costs and attorney fees onto ratepayers, a legal prohibition PG&E lobbyists are seeking to change.

©2018 The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.