In ongoing efforts to reduce wildfire risk and power shutoffs, Pacific Gas and Electric Company submitted its 2021 Wildfire Mitigation Plan last week.
The plan provides updates on the utility’s community wildfire safety program, discusses lessons learned during last year’s wildfire season and outlines additional programs PG&E plans to implement to continue reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfires.
“The last few years have demonstrated how California’s wildfire season continues to grow longer and more devastating,” said Sumeet Singh, senior vice president and chief risk officer. “We are continuing to evolve to meet the challenging conditions to more effectively reduce wildfire risk. We are accountable to our customers and our communities that we are privileged to serve.”
Paul Moreno, spokesperson for PG&E, said now that the plan has been finalized, the utility is currently focused on planning the specifics for local projects.
“We will be sharing those local plans with the counties in the coming months,” said Moreno. “It’s really a continuation of conversations we’ve had with them over the last several years.”
By the end of last year, Moreno said three weather stations and two HD cameras were installed in Colusa County, one weather station and six cameras were installed in Glenn County and two weather stations and eight weather cameras were installed in Tehama County.
There were six community resource centers ready to use in the event of a power shutoff at the end of 2020 in Colusa County, an increase from the one sites available in 2019, according to Moreno. In Glenn County, there were five community resource center sites ready by the end of last year, up from the one location that was available at the end of 2019.
Two additional community resource centers were also completed in Tehama County in 2020, adding to the 15 that were ready for use at the end of 2019.
An additional 23 miles of enhanced vegetation management was also completed in Tehama County in 2020, according to Moreno.
The three key areas of focus in this year’s plan, according to a press release issued by PG&E, are:
– Reducing wildfire potential by inspecting and repairing equipment, conducting enhanced vegetation management, and investing in grid technology and system hardening.
– Improving situational awareness by installing weather stations and high-definition cameras throughout PG&E’s service area as well as investing in PG&E’s wildfire safety operations center that monitors high-fire threat areas in real time and meteorology to monitor weather conditions.
– Continuing to make the power shutoff program better and build on the improvements from the 2020 program by upgrading the electric system to ensure power shutoffs are a last resort and improving support for impacted customers and communities when shutoff is necessary.
According to the release, PG&E is also implementing a new wildfire risk model that can comprehensively assess and prioritize its safety work, including system hardening and enhanced vegetation management, which builds upon the previous model and uses advanced software and machine learning for predicting fire ignitions and improving fire spread simulations for determining the potential impacts of a wildfire.
“This new technology will allow us to more accurately prioritize our efforts within the highest fire-threat areas,” said Debbie Powell, interim head of electric operations. “Because of this advanced model, customers may see a shift in where we are conducting wildfire safety work in the coming years.”
Assemblyman James Gallagher said while he recognizes the efforts made by the utility to prevent catastrophic wildfire, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done.
“There is definitely movement in a better direction,” said Gallagher.
Gallagher said he liked that there was a big focus on vegetation management within this year’s draft of the plan.
“That really is a key component,” said Gallagher. “The dry vegetation is the number one cause of these catastrophic wildfires in these high risk areas...it’s really important that it is cleared away properly.”
One area of concern outlined by Gallagher, however, was the utility’s restricted access to areas of high wildfire risk on federal and state land.
“They shouldn’t have to go through hoops to be able to access and clear the land,” said Gallagher.
Gallagher also expressed concern about the durations of power shutoff events locally, and how local essential establishments such as schools are affected.
“Everybody understands that these PSPS events are necessary when conditions warrant, but when the duration can last for two to three days it takes a toll on residents,” said Gallagher. “Food spoils, people that depend on medical devices struggle to find power, core functioning places like schools are forced to shut down.”
Gallagher said work needs to be done to limit the durations of power shutoff events while exploring ways to provide power to places where power needs to be shut off for an extended period of time, such as providing backup generators.
Locally, Colusa Fire Chief Lonan Conley said it is impressive how comprehensive the utility’s plan is.
“They do a really thorough job of evaluating different areas across the state to determine where these dense vegetation, hazard areas are,” said Conley.
According to Conley, the utility has also been very active with outreach efforts and works closely with local fire departments as they implement their wildfire mitigation efforts, maintaining an open line of communication.
Sutter County Fire Chief John Shalowitz, echoed that and said while Sutter County does not have large areas of concern as do Colusa, Glenn or Tehama counties, the utility has maintained an extraordinary line of communication about not only wildfire mitigation efforts but also public safety issues such as gas emergencies.
Shalowitz said while Sutter County does not see the devastating effects of catastrophic wildfires, his department responds to the events all over the state so it is nice to see PG&E make these efforts to mitigate future wildfires.
“Any effort made in the state of California to better mitigate the causes of these wildfires is always a good thing to any fire chief and will be supported,” said Shalowitz.