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California Reacts to Wildfire Blackouts

U.S. News & World Report logo U.S. News & World Report 12/6/2019 Kateri Wozny

LOS ANGELES – When Sebastopol, California, resident Oren Noah lost his power without warning three days after the Kincade Fire broke out in Sonoma County on Oct. 23, he was confused.

"We were outside of the Pacific Gas and Electric power outage warning area," Noah says. "We also noticed greatly reduced connectivity because our Comcast cable and landline were both down and the cellular strength was lower than usual."

Noah and his family relied on backup batteries to charge their cell phones. He and his family later evacuated at 3:30 a.m. on Oct. 27 and returned to their unscathed home on Oct. 28. Their power returned on Oct. 30.

"PG&E didn't prevent the fire; they actually caused it," Noah says. "The power outage hindered the fire response and it caused a lot of loss to many people with spoiled food, interference with medical devices and general loss of the standard of living."

The cause of the fire is under investigation, but Noah's sentiments are typical of Californians following these wildfires. Frustration, annoyance and confusion abound among residents as they, state government and the utility companies face challenges due to climate change and sprawling development spurred on by rapid population growth. As firefighters continue to contain fires in parts of the state, the October fires taught the Golden State some lessons for the future.

PG&E and Southern California Edison, the two largest utility providers in the state, say public safety is a priority. Jeff Smith, spokesperson with PG&E, tells U.S. News the utility company has been following the California Public Utility Commission's Public Safety Power Shutoff procedure – also known as PSPS – over the past year, while spokesperson Robert Laffoon-Villegas with Southern California Edison says his company has been following it during the past two years.

Under the shutoff procedure, power is temporarily turned off in high fire-risk areas to reduce the threat of wildfires based on weather conditions, including winds above 25 mph and wind gusts that exceed more than 45 mph, low humidity levels that are 20% and below, dry vegetation that could serve as fuel, on-the-ground observations, fire threat to electric infrastructure and public safety risk. "We understand that it is really difficult when losing power service," Smith says. "We are still making sure that we prioritize public safety."

Laffoon-Villegas echoes the importance of the preventive safety procedure. "PSPS shutoffs are one of the many tools that we use to help prevent a spark that could lead to catastrophic wildfires during dry windy conditions," Laffoon-Villegas says via email. "(C)ustomers are not shutoff due to PSPS because of fires."

The state's utility commission said an investigation is underway to examine if the utility companies provided safe and reliable services with their recent shutoffs. The investigation will determine whether changes to existing de-energization regulations and requirements are necessary to ensure public safety.

De-energization regulations and shutoff procedures can't account for all possible scenarios for utilities or their customers. SCE serves 15 million people within a 50,000-square-mile area of central, coastal and Southern California. Laffoon-Villegas says when SCE conducted a shutoff prior to the Easy Fire igniting in Simi Valley on Oct. 30, it was reported that there was activity on a 66,000-volt line around the time of the fire. With the Maria Fire in Santa Paula on Oct. 31, Laffoon-Villegas says the company restored power to a 16,000-volt line after the winds calmed down. Thirteen minutes later, the fire broke out. Both fires are under investigation.

While shutoff procedures address the potential for utility equipment to start a fire, Laffoon-Villegas explains they do not address the causes of fires during windy and dry conditions, as fires can ignite from multiple sources.

"Line inspections after a fire has also shown us where damage and debris could have resulted in a fire from specific events," he says.

During the Kincade Fire, Smith says transmission lines were not de-energized because the weather conditions were still favorable. The lines were also inspected earlier this year as part of the PG&E Wildfire Inspection Program.

PG&E serves 16 million customers within a 70,000-square-mile service area in Northern and central California. Smith says in 2012, only 15% of PG&E customers lived within a high fire-threat impact area. Today, it's 52%.

"It shows how the climate had changed in the state of California and the amount of customers living in an area that has the potential to be a catastrophic wildfire," he says.

Not all customers are unhappy with the utilities' actions before and during the recent wildfires. Kellie Jackson, who lives in the rural area outside of Santa Rosa, California, supports the shutoff procedures. Having gone through the Tubbs Fire in 2017 and the Kincade Fire with wind gusts reaching between 70 mph to 96 mph, Jackson felt more at ease receiving alerts warning her that she would be losing power. Jackson described the Tubbs Fire as a series of "horrific events."

"As long as vital services (such as hospitals) maintained their function, I was fine with it," Jackson says of the power shutoff procedures. "The winds are changing and getting really strong, unmanageable and dry."

Jackson says that during the Kincade Fire, she lost power on Oct. 26. She and her family were not required to evacuate and relied on their vehicles to charge their cell phones. The power was restored on Oct. 31.

"It was a long time to wait to go outside (for long periods of time) because of the smoke," Jackson says.

As the state fought these wildfires in late October, California Gov. Gavin Newsom adopted a $75 million Local Government PSPS Resiliency Program to support state and local government efforts to protect public safety, 200 wildfire-vulnerable communities, and improve resiliency in response to power shutoff procedures.

"PG&E failed to maintain its infrastructure and Californians are facing hardship as a result," Newsom said in an Oct. 25 statement. "These funds will help local governments address these events and assist their most vulnerable residents."

Brian Ferguson, deputy director for Crisis Communication and Public Affairs for the California Office of Emergency Services, says the state is rising to meet the unprecedented challenges.

"Utilizing a decision to turn off the power is adding complexity to emergency response," Ferguson says. "(The cause of wildfires) will continue to be a question for leaders at the state level and for utility regulators to be ready and to respond."

Newsom has demanded that PG&E take accountability regarding shutoff events. In July, he signed Assembly Bill 1054, which requires PG&E to improve its infrastructure by making it resilient to wildfires to avoid shutoff events. Also under the influence of Newsom, PG&E announced it would credit customers who lost power during the Kincade Fire. Jackson of Santa Rosa has since received her credit.

"Things are changing despite those who deny climate," Jackson says. "People need to start considering that this is the new normal."

Copyright 2019 U.S. News & World Report

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