By David Kligman
A wildfire that began last week in Placer County had the potential for significant damage or even worse. The blaze ignited in 100-plus degree temperatures and low humidity in a heavily forested area with lots of grass—prime disaster conditions—in a location that hadn’t burned in a long time.
When emergency officials with PG&E learned of the “Robbers Fire” on the afternoon of July 11, they contacted fellow departments to form a response team. The immediate concern was a distribution tap line about a mile from the fire and a transmission line at the southern end of the fire’s border.
The fire is now mostly contained, and PG&E personnel have left the scene. But emergency officials applauded PG&E’s quick response and integral role.
Praising PG&E’s response
PG&E’s presence was much appreciated, said Capt. Matt Streck, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire). He praised the utility for being proactive and for its innovative use of technology.
“I’ve been in public safety for 25 years and I’ve been to hundreds of fires and this was the best response I’ve ever seen by a utility,” Streck said.
Here’s how it happened:
The team acted quickly. One of the utility’s new Mobile Command Vehicles was dispatched from Stockton and arrived that night.
The emergency vehicles provide on-site support during emergencies and allow PG&E close consult to those overseeing the fire response. But even PG&E didn’t initially know just how useful the utility would be in helping fire officials in Placer County.
As soon as the mobile command vehicle arrived, PG&E emergency team members immediately began printing highly detailed maps showing the proximity of every nearby electric and natural gas line, as well as all the utility’s facilities.
“That allowed the incident commander to plan their response and incorporate utility safety into their plan because they know where our facilities are,” said Angie Gibson, who works with PG&E’s emergency preparedness team.
And because there were no other vehicles with printers, the utility also printed maps for other officials, including the sheriff’s department and Office of Emergency Services.
Quick actions for public safety
PG&E acted quickly to protect the public and firefighters:
- PG&E’s first action was to de-energize electrical distribution lines, providing added safety for firefighters. About 50 customers were impacted, though it was in a mandatory evacuation zone.
- Electric line workers from Auburn, a few miles away, used water tanks with fire hoses attached to spray about 500 power poles with fire retardant to keep the poles from burning.
- PG&E’s maintenance and construction team, working with vegetation management contractors, used four excavators to masticate or grind trees along five miles of transmission lines. The entire work was done in nine hours. Unlike bulldozers, masticating the vegetation is environmentally sound because it leaves the roots and soil structure intact.
- And the community didn’t lose its drinking water, thanks to PG&E. Water officials, who only had an old map of its underground water lines, were worried firefighters using bulldozers would damage the water lines. PG&E offered to overlay the old map on its topographical map and sent the image on an iPad to its GIS (internal mapping team) to help verify the location of the water lines.
PG&E provided 24-hour support for a week, with three employees rotating every 12 hours. PG&E had two emergency employees assist fire officials during the peak firefighting hours between 11 a.m. and 11 p.m.
The Mobile Command Vehicle left Wednesday (July 18) with the fire 80 percent contained. It burned 2,600 acres and destroyed one home. There were 12 minor injuries to firefighters. The cause of the fire wasn’t known.
PG&E’s response, meanwhile, demonstrates its much more progressive approach to responding to emergencies. Already this year, the utility has provided similar support to fire officials in Shasta and Colusa counties. It also put into action the many hours of first responder training PG&E is providing firefighters throughout its territory.
Streck, the Cal Fire official, said having PG&E on site allowed him and other safety officials to meet employees face to face and make connections that will be useful for future emergencies.
“I deal with PG&E day to day, but until now I didn’t have a personal connection to a lot of people,” Streck said. “Besides the support they gave us here on the fire, we were able to build working relationships and get a lot of technical questions answered.”
Neighbors ‘supported, appreciated us’
Many of the hundreds of residents who live nearby were also thrilled with PG&E, said Marty Sunday, one of the utility’s electric maintenance and construction superintendents.
“When they saw us take out the fuel down to the ground they sure were happy,” Sunday said. “When they saw us spraying the fire retardant they asked what we were doing. When they found out what we were doing they really supported us and appreciated that we were so proactive.”
When asked whether PG&E has enough resources to respond to potentially many more fires in the coming months, Gibson didn’t hesitate.
“Absolutely,” she said. “There are 21,000 employees in this company and this is where we shine—when the chips are down. PG&E has never backed down from an opportunity to be there for our community.”
E-mail David Kligman at David.Kligman@pge.com.