California has been suffering from more than its fair share of problems, including the recent fires and forced power outages. As wildfires rage across the state and people remember with dread the lost city of Paradise, residents are evacuated from their homes and others sit in the dark, wrapped in blankets and cooking on wood stoves. The energy company’s strategy to prevent these infernos doesn’t seem to be helping, and it may even be the cause of the most recent Kincade fire.
Lights Out to Prevent Forest Fires
My son and his family bought a home in California just two months ago, and already PG&E has shut off their electricity three times, all in the name of preventing the start or spread of wildfires. Unfortunately, their story is not unique, as thousands of customers struggle with the same issues: schools shutting down, leaving children at home with parents in a house with no heat, lights, and – God forbid – television or internet. Local stores are hard-pressed to keep such essentials as bottled water, flashlights, and batteries in stock. Customers are warned about the shutoffs and lay in wait to find out when electricity will be restored, only to get lights on and be told everything will be shut off again in a day or two.
The utility company claims to sympathize with its customers. A spokesperson for PG&E, Jason King, said, “We understand that shutting off power is an extreme measure that disrupts lives, and we certainly recognize that there are areas of our operations and communications where we need to get better.”
On its website, the company explained its newest plan of action, the Public Safety Power Shutoff program:
“We anticipate that a Public Safety Power Shutoff could occur several times per year in PG&E’s service area although it is impossible to predict with certainty when, where and how often gusty winds and dry conditions, combined with a heightened fire risk, could occur, given the rapidly changing environmental conditions.”
Remembering the Camp Fire that lasted 17 days, killed 85 people, burned more than 150,000 acres, and nearly decimated the city of Paradise may make it a little easier to tolerate wearing hats and jackets to bed and reading by candlelight. But are such sacrifices helping to prevent more fires from starting?
Cal Fire determined that PG&E’s electrical transmission lines were the cause of the Camp Fire. The energy company also has been blamed for more than 1,500 fires since 2014. Trying to prevent triggering more, especially since the company is currently filing for bankruptcy from past incidents, PG&E is cutting electricity to thousands (or even a million at last count) of customers whenever the company feels the weather and high winds pose an issue with its power lines. But is this working? Apparently not.
PG&E the Culprit for Another CA Wildfire?
The Kincade fire in Sonoma County, which started on Oct. 23, is only 5% contained and has consumed more than 66,000 acres. Two firefighters have been injured, one seriously enough to be airlifted to the U.C. Davis Medical Center. So far, the fire has destroyed 96 structures, damaged another 16, and is currently threatening 80,000 others. And the spark that ignited this fire may just be laid at PG&E’s doorstep.
Electrical lines on a transmission located on Burned Mountain malfunctioned just before the Kincade fire sparked, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. The power company sent a report to state regulators saying it became aware of an outage “when the line relayed and did not reclose,” meaning it did not restart. The Chronicle reported that PG&E said the transmission lines of that voltage were energized when the fire started, even though the company had turned off electricity to lower-voltage distribution lines in the area because of high fire danger. However, the utility company also said it felt the winds were not strong enough to necessitate shutting off stronger transmission lines in that area.
Cal Fire personnel said the problem “appeared to be a broken jumper on the same tower.” Although the tower had been inspected earlier this year, there were still some minor problems that were found and fixed, according to CEO Bill Johnson.
Wildfires are nothing new to the Golden State, a natural part of its ecosystems. While some may claim climate change is a culprit, others argue that California’s mismanaged forestry is causing the growing number of disastrous fires. Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a state of emergency on Oct. 27 after approximately 200,000 people had already been forced to leave their homes. Only time will tell if PG&E’s power cutoff plan will really help, or if it causes more harm than good. Meanwhile, it’s lights out for many Californians as they wait to see if they will be the next to be evacuated.