By Lynsey Paulo
Near Groveland, Tuolumne County — The Rim Fire burning near and in Yosemite National Park is one of the largest wildfires in California history. The fire has charred more than 187,000 acres and covers 280 square miles.
Several thousand firefighters from more than 75 agencies in California are battling the fire, and PG&E is providing critical support.
“At the beginning of the fire we reacted very well getting the resources up here so we could get the lines de-energized so that they could really engage in their fire suppression activities,” said Robert Cupp, a PG&E electric superintendent and the company’s Incident Commander for the Rim Fire.
Safety is priority number one for PG&E. A Field Safety team is fully embedded with the more than 80 PG&E employees and contractors working at the Rim Fire to help ensure public, employee and agency safety.
PG&E deployed three Mobile Command Vehicles to three different locations and is working closely with Cal Fire, U.S. Forest Service and State Office of Emergency Services, sharing information, providing work space and fire and infrastructure maps for strategic planning.
Collaboration is critical
Bill Bondshu with California Emergency Management Agency explains why PG&E’s support and collaboration is critical.
“We have to work crews around the fire and we need to know whether it’s okay to work under some of PG&E structures or not,” said Bonshu. “We have to have the coordination and collaboration going on at the incident all the time. It’s about our safety and trying to protect that infrastructure as best we can.”
PG&E is focused on minimizing impacts to customers and on protecting its critical infrastructure near the fire which includes electric distribution lines, electric substations and hydro-generating facilities.
In addition to protecting facilities and equipment potentially in the fire’s path, PG&E workers and contractors are doing damage assessment and repairing or replacing equipment.
“My job is to get out in front of the crews, assess the situation, so we can be efficient,” said Bob Severson, a lineman in Sonora serving as an assessment lead on the fire.
It is difficult work being conducted in rough terrain, smoky conditions and rising temperatures. PG&E general construction crews are removing and replacing charred utility poles. Vegetation management crews are inspecting thousands of dead or hazard trees in the utility right-of-way that could fall into power lines.
“They won’t stand. Either we put them on the ground to ensure public safety and reliability of our services or they’ll fail on their own,” said Richard Yarnell, a manager with vegetation management.
An unpredictable fire
Yarnell said access to inspect utility lines has been challenging because the fire is so unpredictable. It has reburned in areas that already burned several times.
”The fire burnt through here so fast and so hot that not all the vegetation was burned out so there’s still a lot of fuels in the forest here that can reignite that can cause another wildfire,” Yarnell said.
Contract tree crews have safely felled more than a thousand severely damaged trees so far to prevent them from falling into lines, causing power outages or sparking new fires.
Cupp said the totality of the work being done to support fire suppression activities, keep the lights on for customers and protect PG&E’s electric system could not be done without all the support from the rest of the employees at PG&E who are not actively involved in the fire.
“It’s a pretty remote place. Just the connection that we have to our corporate partners that are back at other places doing the things that we need done in order to be successful up here just shows what we can do as a company as we pull together,” Cupp said.
“It’s just another example of when we are faced with challenges how we come together as a unit to accomplish a task.”
Email Lynsey Paulo at firstname.lastname@example.org.