Working the threat: PG&E partners with local government to fight fire
Clearing vegetation from utility lines is of paramount importance to reducing fire risk.
Sam Goodspeed, division chief of the Grass Valley/Nevada City Fire Department, called it a priority as he shared details of his department’s collaboration with PG&E.
Nevada City has worked closely with the utility giant to ensure transmission and distribution lines are maintained at a top tier level, he said last week.
“We recently partnered with PG&E to clear a vitally important section of power line that facilitates the Eric Rood (Administrative) Center that might otherwise lose service in the event of Public Safety Power Shut-off event,” said Goodspeed.
With assistance from Nevada City, they cleared around the power lines that run through the city, which provide service to the government center. The work was completed over the course of several weeks. Primarily, large trees were removed.
“These were trees that could impact and cause downed power lines,” said Goodspeed. “This would interrupt service and have the potential to start a fire. And recent catastrophic fires throughout the state over the last few years have highlighted the need for this critical care.”
The Camp Fire, Goodspeed said, was caused by downed power lines.
It was the most destructive and deadliest in the state’s history. The fire, which started on Nov. 8, 2018, burned 153,000 acres, destroyed almost 19,000 buildings in Butte County and resulted in 85 fatalities. It was named for Camp Creek Road, where the fire broke out.
PG&E has an entire crew devoted to inspecting and prioritizing environmental and fire fuels projects that harm their infrastructure, said Megan McFarland, PG&E spokesperson. It’s called the Enterprise Vegetation Management division, and monitors 70,000 square miles from Bakersfield to Eureka.
“Our program routinely inspects over 100,000 miles of overhead power lines every year, with some locations patrolled several times a year.” she said. “We prune or cut down a million trees a year to maintain clearance from power lines, and remove diseased trees, primarily in areas affected by drought and bark beetles.”
Goodspeed said Nevada City makes every effort to make a priority of city-owned properties for routine vegetation abatement. As part of upgrading its tools, the city just placed an order for a masticator to collect and process the harvested vegetation.
“It should be delivered early next year,” he said. “It was made through Prop 64 grant funding.”
McFarland said that, owing to increased wildfire conditions across the state, PG&E has expanded vegetation safety work to engage vegetation that poses a higher potential for wildfire risk in high fire-threat areas.
“Our enhanced vegetation management work exceeds state standards for minimum clearances around power lines, including pruning branches over power lines,” she said.
And she stressed that PG&E conducts supplemental inspections beyond routine patrols to clear diseased or dying trees that can harm power lines and other equipment. As well, it evaluates the condition of trees that may need harvesting, if they grow high enough to strike lines or equipment.
“Our goal was to complete enhanced vegetation management on 1,800 distribution circuit miles in 2020,” said McFarland. “In 2019, we completed enhanced management on 2,498 miles.”
While millions of dollars are held in contracts with vendors specializing in land management to abate fire threats, local government must do its part, Goodspeed said.
In past years the city has cleared the eastern boundary of Pioneer Park along Little Deer Creek that runs through the park and along the Little League baseball facility.
“At Sugarloaf Mountain, we’re seeking grant opportunities for vegetation management, routine clearance of the maintenance road and installing hiking trails,” said Goodspeed. “Also, at Hirschman’s Pond, we’re pursuing grant opportunities for vegetation management and maintenance of hiking trails. While in the Deer Creek environs, we’re working with the city to secure funding to create a shaded fuel break along Deer Creek, between Nevada City and Bitney Springs Road.”
McFarland said these projects can present challenges to the crews performing the work, such as steep terrain.
“In these cases we often bring in specialized equipment to help execute the work,” said McFarland. “For example, if we need to replace a pole in the area with steep terrain, we actually bring in a helicopter to help with the pole setting.”
The city also adopted a hazardous vegetation abatement ordinance that requires private property owners to reasonably maintain their own property. The cost can be fairly steep depending on the scope of the work required.
“But the Nevada County Fire Safe Council has programs to help the elderly, disabled or low income members of the community,” Goodspeed said.
William Roller is a staff writer with The Union. He can be reached at email@example.com
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