Facing Blame for Fires, Utility Plans 24/7 Prediction and Response Center in California

The state's Public Utilities Commission set a new batch of rules after over 100 lawsuits have been filed against PG&E for October's wildfire.

by David R. Baker, San Francisco Chronicle / March 23, 2018
Other states sent firefighters to help battle the California wildfires last fall. (Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP)

(TNS) — Pacific Gas and Electric Co. plans to unveil a sweeping set of steps to prevent wildfires or contain them when they erupt.

The utility, whose equipment is being investigated as a potential cause of the Wine Country fires last fall, will create a wildfire prediction and response center in San Francisco that will operate around the clock during fire season. The company will greatly expand its own network of weather stations to monitor conditions, adding hundreds more this year.

PG&E will contract with out-of-state firefighters, keeping them on retainer for emergencies. And it will harden its electrical grid to better endure windstorms, replacing wooden poles with sturdier steel ones over time.

“Our system and our mind-set need to be laser-focused on working together to help prevent devastating wildfires like the ones in the North Bay in October and Southern California in December from happening again, and in responding quickly and effectively if they do,” said Pat Hogan, senior vice president of electric operations for PG&E.

Some of the steps, which PG&E plans to formally announce Thursday, are already under way.

For example, PG&E is developing a policy for preemptively switching off power lines at times of extreme fire danger, a step other utilities have taken but PG&E long resisted. The company is also reprogramming devices called reclosers that are designed to prevent blackouts, but can spark fires under certain conditions.

The new Wildfire Safety Operations Center, meanwhile, may open as early as April, Hogan said.

Other planned steps are still to come, and could take years to complete. Swapping out poles, for example, will likely be an ongoing process stretching out a decade. The utility said it will consider putting more power lines underground, but Hogan said it was “not a panacea.”

PG&E’s plans will be expensive, although PG&E on Wednesday did not offer a price estimate for its wildfire safety program.

To pass on those costs to its customers, the company would need the approval of the California Public Utilities Commission, which could address them through a general rate case or in a separate proceeding, Hogan said.

“The point is we’re moving now, and we’ll work through those processes in terms of cost recovery when the time comes,” he said. “But we’re not letting that hold us up.”

Investigators with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, Cal Fire, have not yet announced the cause of any of the North Bay fires that started during a windstorm on Oct. 8 and killed 45 people, destroying entire neighborhoods of Santa Rosa.

But suspicion quickly fell on PG&E’s equipment, since California has a history of power lines sparking wildfires when blasted by high winds. And in the nearly six months since the fires began, no evidence has surfaced in public pointing to any cause other than electrical equipment.

More than 100 lawsuits — some filed by the counties of Mendocino, Napa and Sonoma — have been filed against PG&E, blaming the company for the flames. Damage estimates top $10 billion.

State officials have been discussing legislation that would force California’s utilities to take some of the steps included in PG&E’s new plan. For example, SB901 from Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, would require utilities to shut down their electrical lines when weather conditions pose the greatest risk.

“I think it’s smart policy,” said Dodd on Wednesday after hearing of PG&E’s plans. “I applaud them for doing it, but at the same time, I think it’s something we ought to mandate in the form of legislation to make sure they’re doing it and to make sure we know how they’re doing it.”

Several of the steps mirror those taken by San Diego Gas and Electric Co. after devastating wildfires swept through its territory in 2007.

For example, SDG&E and Southern California Edison — both smaller utilities than PG&E — reprogram their reclosers during fire season to prevent the devices from trying to restart power lines that have unexpectedly switched off. The devices shoot a burst of electricity through the line and can spark a fire if the line is tangled with tree branches or lying on the ground.

PG&E was experimenting with doing the same thing at the time of the North Bay fires, but still had many reclosers programmed to restart their lines.

“San Diego Gas and Electric learned those lessons in 2007, and they’re following those practices, but it looks like PG&E is late to the game,” said state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, who chairs the Senate subcommittee on utilities. “This is an outstanding effort, and it’s a pity these steps weren’t taken sooner, such as after the Butte Fire in 2015.”

The Wildfire Safety Operations Center will monitor weather and climate conditions for potential fire hazards and warn the utility when the possibility of fires rises, a function currently handled by the utility’s meteorology department. If a fire erupts, the center will also help coordinate the utility’s response.

“It’s going to be our eyes and ears for determining what the risk is out there,” Hogan said.

Cal Fire Deputy Director Mike Mohler said his agency would have no problem with PG&E bringing in contract firefighters, so long as those firefighters have the proper training and follow Cal Fire’s control of the fire scene. Insurance companies, he said, already hire private firefighters to protect individual homes, so the arrangement isn’t new. A PG&E spokesman said Wednesday that the company had contracted with firefighting services “on a limited basis in the past.”

“They need to know our operation,” Mohler said. “It would be our direction, our command and control.”

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