Advertisement
Share

As wildfire season ramps up, PG&E expands instant power shutoff program

A horse stands in a field next to a road as smoke rises from a wildfire in nearby hills
The Dixie fire burns above Greenville, Calif., in August 2021.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

As California prepares to enter the heart of wildfire season amid drought and historically dry conditions, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. said Friday that it has expanded its instant power line shutoffs to cover more high-risk areas.

The Northern California utility said its safety settings turn off power to a circuit “within one-tenth of a second” of a fault, such as a tree branch falling onto a line.

Such faults linked to PG&E equipment have sparked a series of recent massive wildfires, including last year’s Dixie fire and the 2018 Camp fire, which led to felony manslaughter charges, millions of dollars in fines and a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing meant to shield the company from tens of billions of dollars in potential liabilities.

After the Dixie fire, PG&E rolled out its power line shutoff program last year. With fewer than 200 circuits covered, PG&E noted an 80% reduction in ignitions in high-wildfire-threat areas reported to the California Public Utilities Commission, compared with the previous three-year average.

The conditions that paved the way for the Dixie fire’s growth are becoming more common.

Advertisement

After this year’s expansion, PG&E said, the program covers 1,000 circuits, 25,000 miles of distribution lines in high-risk areas and about 3 million people.

So far this year, there have been 205 outages on circuits covered by the program, with an average restoration time of 3.5 hours, the company said.

To reduce outages, PG&E said it will take steps such as proactively pruning and removing vegetation around equipment in some locations.

The utility also launched a new tool for customers to check whether their address may be affected by the shutoffs.

The instant shutoffs differ from public safety power outages, which are instituted during high winds and other dangerous fire conditions.

In those outages, utilities such as PG&E and Southern California Edison often send out notifications of an impending shutoff to customers.

PG&E is set to emerge from felony probation, and the judge who oversaw it slams the utility for setting wildfires. PG&E says it is a safer company now.

The expansion of the instant shutoffs comes as PG&E faces criticism over the Dixie fire, which was sparked when a 65-foot Douglas fir fell onto PG&E equipment, according to a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection report made public last week. The blaze was not discovered by a PG&E employee until 10 hours later.

The fire, the second-largest in state history, burned nearly 1 million acres in Butte, Plumas, Lassen, Tehama and Shasta counties last summer, destroyed hundreds of homes and leveled much of the town of Greenville.

Cal Fire investigators said PG&E’s response “was a direct and negligent factor in the ignition of the fire.”

“Had PG&E arrived on the scene earlier, they could have detected the fault … and opened the third fuse before it had time to ignite a receptive fuel,” Cal Fire wrote in its report.

In response, PG&E said that “there was no indication of an emergency until our troubleman arrived at the scene soon after the fire had started.”


Advertisement