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PG&E urges preparation for wildfire season

Wildfire has become a nearly year-round fear.

That’s one reason PG&E opted to hold a webinar this week for residents of wildfire zones, urging them to stay alert and ready to respond to a wildfire event.

Many Nevada County residents have experienced Public Safety Power Shut-Off events. They can be a necessary tool, said Brent Stangeland, PG&E senior public safety specialist.



“But we use this tool as a last resort,” he said at Wednesday’s webinar. “High winds can cause debris and tree branches to contact high energy electrical lines and may cause a wildfire. A PSPS is always weather driven and even if severe weather is miles away from your location, you may be impacted because your electricity can originate from a generator source miles away,”

PG&E always considers a combination of factors for a PSPS — low humidity, high wind and dry ground vegetation that can cause the National Weather Service to issue a Red Flag Warning.



Such a warning arrived for the foothills and several nearby counties on Thursday. It’s expected to expire at 8 p.m. tonight. No PSPS is expected.

Stangeland said PG&E has recently implemented enhanced powerline safety setting devices integrated with lines, so it can automatically turn off power within one-tenth of a second once a branch, wildlife or piece of equipment contacts a line. And since the drought has increased wildfire risk, this system will be placed throughout the PG&E service area.

“(It’s) a proven wildfire prevention tool for High Fire Threat areas,” Stangeland said. “We saw an 80% reduction in CPUC-reportable fire ignitions (compared to a three-year average) so in 2022 we’re expanding our … circuits in all High Fire Threat areas and adjoining properties.”

HIGH FIRE THREAT

This criteria is a first step that may lead to further analysis by PG&E’s meteorological team to determine if a PSPS is really necessary.

“In 2019, PSPS outages impacted 2 million customers,” said Stangeland. “But in 2021 it impacted just 80,000. We’re listening to our customers and providing more information in (High Fire Threat) areas. With (enhanced powerline safety setting devices) we reduce the number of outages and their duration while getting crews to identify the section of line needing repair faster.

“We understand the impact of losing power and we’re working hard to fine tune the sensitivity of the safety settings so outages only occur when there’s a wildfire threat,” he added. “And customers can expect improved notification with text, automated calls, social media and emails.”

Highlighting the advantages of under-grounding, Brandon Sanders, PG&E senior representative for government affairs, said that placing powerlines underground is the most effective tool to prevent wildfires.

“Benefits include a 99% reduction of risk of wildfire, a one-time investment, improved reliability and no need to worry about cars hitting power poles, and lessens or eliminates annual repair,” Sanders said.

He also pointed out that PG&E will not have to deal with trees colliding with lines, and fewer trees will need treatment or removal. Additionally, the company already has taken on system hardening of lines with stronger poles and covered powerlines, as well as installed wider crossarms to increase separation of power poles and used materials other than wood in most cases.

“We’ve completed a number of underground events, 52 miles in recent years,” he said.

Rebecca Darrah is PG&E’s vegetation program manager. She said their routine management program already identified 1 million trees to be pruned or cut down to maintain appropriate clearance.

“And we’ve already completed enhanced vegetation management on 244 miles in Nevada County,” she said. “And then this year we got an additional 225 miles planned. Our enhanced vegetation management exceeds state standards for powerlines and includes trimming or removing all leaves and branches overhanging power lines as well as removing dead, dying and diseased trees. And we conduct routine inspections covering 100,000 miles that covers our service area annually.”

Mark Quinlian, PG&E vice president of electric system operations, said that all the topics the webinar discussed are vital to continue to mitigate the threat of wildfire.

“The installation of sectionalizing devices, overhead hardening, under-grounding, vegetation management, all of those things together work to reduce wildfire risk,” he said. “It’s really a combination of all these tactics considered along with PSPS and (enhanced powerline safety setting devices) to keep us safe in extreme conditions.”

William Roller is a staff writer with The Union. He can be reached at wroller@theunion.com


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