Energy provider Pacific Gas and Electric, which provides power for 16 million Californians between North State California to the outskirts of the greater Los Angeles area, announced of Friday that customers should prepare for another high temporary power outage season due to the wildfire season nearing.
Following the disastrous 2018 Camp Fire that claimed the lives of over 80 people in the town of Paradise and destroyed over 18,000 structures, PG&E was found to be at fault for, among other things, having faulty transmission wiring and not clearing dry brush, and was subsequently ordered to pay over $24,5 billion in fines and settlements. The rapid rise of insurance claims against the company also brought PG&E into bankruptcy in early 2019. After nearly being taken over by the state, the company eventually exited bankruptcy under strict terms in July 2020, and has since continued to pay fines for various wildfires across the state.
As a precaution, the company also instituted planned blackouts to avoid any more costly wildfires, especially during dry or high wind situations. However, that decision left hundreds of thousands of Californians without power for days on end in 2019 and 2020.
Despite judges ordering PG&E to ramp up efforts to inspect power lines, clear brush, and trim trees to reduce wildfire risk, PG&E noted earlier this year that they are far behind in their efforts to reduce wildfire risk.
That, along with high winds expected to be back, and drier than usual conditions across Northern and Central California due to the drought, led PG&E to announce that blackouts would be returning in 2021, albeit, according to PG&E officials, not being as bad as the 2019 planned blackouts.
“The big, big variable that’s unpredictable here is the wind,” said PG&E Risk Officer Sumeet Singh earlier this week. “But in all the forecasts that we’ve done, we do not see ourselves getting back to the same kind of power outage events like we saw in 2019.”
PG&E said in their press release that, in addition to shutdowns, homeowners should keep a 100 foot defensible space around their home and keep out flammable materials to hinder wildfire growth.
Planned blackouts and wildfire protection
“As California heads into wildfire season and with 77 percent of the state facing extreme or exceptional drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, PG&E urges customers and the communities it serves to prepare now and take safety precautions to reduce wildfire risk,” said the company in their release on Thursday. “California law requires homeowners to maintain 100 feet of defensible space around homes and structures, or to the property line, by clearing out flammable materials such as brush or vegetation to help halt the progress of an approaching wildfire. This defensible space also provides for firefighter safety while they protect homes during a wildfire.
“According to the Fire Safe Council of Santa Cruz County, creating a buffer around your home does not mean you need a ring of bare dirt surrounding your property. With proper planning, you can have a fire safe home and a beautiful landscape. The general concept is that trees should be kept farthest from the house, shrubs can be closer, and lawns and bedding plants can be the closest.
“During severe weather, PG&E may need to turn off power for public safety as high winds can cause tree branches or debris to contact energized electric lines, which could damage electrical equipment and cause a major wildfire.
“Extreme weather threats can change quickly. PG&E’s goal, dependent on weather and other factors, is to send customer alerts through automated calls, texts, and emails at 48 hours, again at 24 hours, and once more just prior to shutting off power.”
PG&E also suggested clearing brush off of roofs, trimming trees, and looking into programs provided by PG&E for power outage assistance, such as generator rebate programs.
Critics, however, pointed out that PG&E is possibly preparing for larger than normal power outages despite saying previously that they wouldn’t be as bad as 2019.
“They’re trying to be the good guy here,” Dory Isley, a former customer relations supervisor for a power company, explained to the Globe on Friday. “But they are offering rebates on power generators. They are talking portable batteries. This isn’t some small-scale thing. They are expecting big swaths out. I haven’t seen wording like this since I worked in the Southeast when power companies sent out hurricane guidance.”
“They’re trying to play it off, but in reality they don’t want people rally against them for all of these power outages that they themselves are partially to blame for not fixing things fast enough. They even put some blame on the people, pointing out state laws there.
“Bottom line, they’re deflecting on how much the blackouts are still going to be their fault.”
California wildfire season is expected to begin in early July, although many experts note that, due to the environmental conditions, it is more of a soft season beginning, with large wildfires being possible at any time.