With nearly all of California experiencing extreme or exceptional drought conditions and an early start to the traditional peak of wildfire season, Pacific Gas and Electric announced in a press release issued Monday, Aug. 2, a series of additional safety measures it is undertaking, over and above its 2021 Community Wildfire Safety Program and 2021 Wildfire Mitigation Plan, to help with the growing wildfire threat in many parts of its service area.
Additionally, PG&E filed an electric incident report (EIR) with the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) related to the Fly Fire that started near Butterfly Valley. The Fly Fire was overtaken by the Dixie Fire approximately two days after it started on July 22, 2021.
“We appreciate the heroic efforts of CAL FIRE, the U.S. Forest Service and other first responders fighting these fires and protecting life and property. We will be tenacious in our efforts to stop ignitions from our equipment. We recently announced our initiative to underground 10,000 miles of overhead power lines, which will significantly reduce the risk we face in the years to come. Today, we are outlining additional safety actions to combat the real and evolving wildfire threat present today,” said Patti Poppe, PG&E’s CEO.
Current Drought Conditions
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 85 percentof California is now in the extreme drought category. The Northern Sierra has had the second driest two-year period in nearly 50 years, with only about half of normal amounts of rain and snow. Today, more than 50 percent of the land in PG&E’s Northern and Central California service area is now considered part of High Fire Threat Districts (HFTDs) and all of it is in these drought-impacted regions.
“The fires we’ve seen this summer are not wind-driven events that we typically see in the fall; they are primarily dry fuel-driven events. Climate change impacts have led to more frequent heat waves, extreme drought, and millions of dead and dying trees, which have created elevated wildfire risk. It’s not just in California. It’s happening across the West from British Columbia to Arizona and in between,” said Scott Strenfel, director of PG&E meteorology.
Additional Safety Measures
Due to the drought-intensified conditions including extremely dry fuel conditions and the receptivity of those fuels to ignite and spread quickly, even without major winds, PG&E is taking additional steps to further mitigate the potential for equipment-sparked wildfires.
“We’re learning from other utilities and leaders battling this threat in the U.S. and on other continents, and are leveraging new technologies, better data analysis, more hardened equipment and more tree trimming to reduce risk of wildfire. We’re delivering on our 2021 Wildfire Mitigation Plan objectives and are taking even more steps to manage the extreme drought and fuel conditions. These actions will help keep our customers and communities safe,” said Sumeet Singh, PG&E senior vice president and chief risk officer.
PG&E’s additional measures include:
Expediting its operational response practices in HFTDs. For the remainder of the wildfire season, PG&E will target responding to any fault or outage on its electric system in these high fire risk areas within 60 minutes or less. This is the same response criteria the company uses for any 9-1-1 emergency response request (such as a call about a wire down or a reported fire ignition).
Increasing the sensitivity of its fault-sensing devices in high fire threat areas and increasing the speed in which these devices will operate to prevent potential arcs and sparks that could result in fire ignitions. This additional safety step could lead to more frequent and potentially longer outages at the local level, but it is an important step to keep PG&E’s customers and communities safe.
Identifying the most at-risk circuits (or miles of power lines) currently impacted by the drought and performing additional safety patrols in the most fire-prone counties within Tier 2 and Tier 3 HFTDs for potential risks using helicopters, vehicles and foot patrols and repairing any priority issues identified on an expedited basis. This additional review is an added safety measure over and above the inspections that are a part of PG&E’s 2021 Wildfire Mitigation Plan.
These additional safety enhancements are atypical and are in response to the current historic drought conditions.
Recently Announced Undergrounding Initiative: Make It Safe/Bury the Lines
PG&E recently announced a major new initiative to expand the undergrounding of electric distribution power lines in HFTDs to further harden its system and help prevent wildfires.
The new infrastructure safety initiative is a multi-year effort to underground approximately 10,000 miles of power lines. The exact number of projects or miles undergrounded each year through PG&E’s new expanded undergrounding program will evolve as PG&E performs further project scoping and inspections, estimating and engineering review.
This commitment represents the largest effort in the U.S. to underground power lines as a wildfire risk reduction measure.
In addition to significantly reducing wildfire risk, undergrounding also benefits customers by lessening the need for Public Safety Power Shutoffs, which are called as a last resort during dry, windy conditions to reduce the risk of vegetation contacting live power lines and sparking a wildfire. Undergrounding also eases the need for vegetation management efforts, leaving more of California’s trees untouched.
PG&E Files EIR on the Fly Fire that Was Overtaken by the Dixie Fire
On Tuesday, Aug. 3 PG&E assisted the U.S. Forest Service, which is investigating the cause of the Fly Fire, with moving and examining a tree that was laying on PG&E’s conductor at a site off Highway 70 in near Butterfly Valley of highway 70. The USFS investigation is continuing, and PG&E is cooperating. The investigation is at a preliminary stage, and no determination of the cause has been announced.
According to the USFS website, the Fly Fire is reported to have started at approximately 5:15 p.m. on July 22, 2021, and burned approximately 4,000 acres before being overtaken just over 48 hours later by the Dixie Fire, which is discussed further in PG&E’s most recent Form 10-Q filed on July 29, 2021.
Commitment to Wildfire Safety
PG&E’s multi-faceted Community Wildfire Safety Program includes both immediate and long-term action plans to further reduce wildfire risk and keep its customers and communities safe.
Since 2018, PG&E’s wildfire safety work has resulted in:
Multiple inspections of distribution, transmission and substation equipment in high fire-threat areas;
Hardening more than 600 miles with stronger lines and poles to better withstand severe weather;
Conducting enhanced vegetation safety work on nearly 5,000 line miles in high fire-threat areas (this is in addition to the more than 5 million trees that PG&E has trimmed or removed as part of its routine vegetation management and tree mortality efforts);
Installing more than 1,000 sectionalizing devices and switches that limit the size of Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS) that are necessary to mitigate the risk of wildfires;
Installing more than 1,150 advanced weather stations to help PG&E gather more data and information to better predict and respond to extreme weather threats;
Installing more than 400 high-definition cameras to monitor and respond to wildfires;
Reserving more than 65 helicopters to quickly restore power after severe weather during PSPS events; and
Monitoring wildfire threats in real-time through a dedicated team at PG&E’s Wildfire Safety Operations Center, which is staffed 24 hours a day during wildfire season.
Ongoing Wildfire Mitigation and Resiliency Efforts
In addition to significantly expanding its undergrounding, PG&E’s ongoing safety work to enhance grid resilience and address the growing threat of severe weather and wildfires continues on a risk-based and data-driven basis, as outlined in PG&E’s 2021 Wildfire Mitigation Plan.
Installing stronger poles and covered power lines;
Deploying remote grids and community microgrids;
Targeted sectionalizing and grid reconfiguration;
Investing in centralized data analytics to reduce risk;
Conducting enhanced vegetation management; and
Scaling the deployment of emerging technologies to proactively mitigate wildfire risk.