By Jennifer Robison
Armed with months of planning plus response experiences from 2015, PG&E departments ranging from Emergency Management to Meteorology Services are set to face California’s wildfire season head-on with new initiatives, state-of-the-art technologies and augmented prevention programs.
“We anticipate a very busy, very dynamic season of extreme fire behavior similar to last year, with fires that get very large, very quickly, and that’s what we’ve prepared for,” said Angie Gibson, manager, emergency management and public safety.
The advance planning follows 2015’s active season.
Wildfires burned nearly 308,000 acres across California in 2015, up 61 percent from 191,000 acres in 2014, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire). Two of 2015’s wildfires — Butte and Valley — made Cal Fire’s list of the 10 most damaging wildfires in state history.
Several wildfires swept through PG&E service areas. More than 1,400 employees responded to wildfire-caused infrastructure damage that affected service to about 33,000 customers. In August, PG&E had four incident teams responding to three major fires at the same time — a first for the utility, Gibson said. The company spent $55.8 million responding to major fires, and $183 million repairing infrastructure damage.
This summer could prove just as active.
“We expect another extreme fire season,” said Mike Voss, PG&E principal meteorologist. “Fires have been getting progressively worse with the drought. We did get a decent amount of rain last winter, but it wasn’t enough to reduce the risk. The seasonal hot and dry weather is happening earlier, there’s lots of fuel left over from the drought and there are lots of dead trees in the forest from beetle kill.”
Tree deaths widespread
Years of drought and a regional bark beetle infestation have claimed 66 million dead trees across California since 2010, the U.S. Forest Service reported June 22. Tree mortality exceeds 50 percent in parts of the Sierra and Stanislaus national forests, which cover sections of Tuolumne, Mariposa, Madera and Fresno counties.
The bark beetle has deforested about 84,000 acres, or 6.5 percent, of Sierra National Forest’s area, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Tree deaths span PG&E’s service area as far north as Shasta County. In Tuolumne, Mariposa, Madera, Fresno, Tulare and Kern counties, forests hold 6 billion board feet of dead trees — equal to the amount of lumber in 375,000 average single-family homes.
Dead wood feeds wildfires, so the PG&E Vegetation Management team is already hard at work inside the die-off’s epicenter.
The group had its fire season kickoff meeting in May to “make sure the necessary resources are in place and our contractors are ready” to remove hundreds of thousands of hazard trees, said Kamran Rasheed, supervising vegetation program manager.
Vegetation management has quadrupled the number of crews that look for and clear dying and dead trees. About 120 contract crews of two to 10 people are on second, or redundant, patrol in areas of high fire danger to spot problem trees or limbs that threaten power lines. That’s up from about 30 redundant crews in 2015. What’s more, crews now conduct these secondary patrols year-round, rather than beginning in April or June. The redundant crews are in addition to the roughly 650 contract crews that conduct routine vegetation management work over the entire service area each year.
As redundant patrols have increased, so have tree removals. The drought and bark beetle infestation program expects crews to remove 160,000 trees through year’s end, Rasheed said.
Vegetation management has also helped Fire Safe Councils and Cal Fire. It helped Cal Fire relicense the software that runs smoke-detection cameras, and provided funding to Fire Safe Councils for 45 shovel-ready fuel reduction projects in 20 counties. Plus, PG&E has scheduled five smoke-detection flights a day, up from four in 2015. The flights began June 27.
The PG&E Emergency Management and Public Safety team also has spent months ramping up for fire season.
Utility poles pretreated with fire retardant
For starters, the department stepped up its program to pretreat utility poles with fire retardant to protect them from flames and prevent them from becoming road debris. PG&E has 16 retardant-spraying trailers, up from five a year ago, and has added trailers in the Central Coast region to go with existing trailers in the North Valley and Yosemite areas. Another 11 trailers are on order, for additional units in the Central Valley and Central Coast regions. PG&E will move trailers based on fire risk and response strategy. Crews are pretreating poles ahead of schedule to reinforce training and get in front of peak fire season from late July through late September.
“A lot of our pole lines run along roadways, and when fire damages poles, those poles, transformers and switches all become debris on the roadway,” Gibson said. “That debris can prevent responders from gaining safe, ready access to areas they need to be in to fight fires.”
The team’s information technology and telecommunications partners also bought three new communications trailers, bringing the total to five. The trailers will give base camps the same network capacity and Internet connectivity as any PG&E service center, Gibson said.
But, perhaps most importantly, last year’s wildfire season reinforced both the importance of the company’s Emergency Management Advancement Program, launched in 2013 to plan ahead for disasters, and relationship-building with public agencies.
“We’ve done a lot to engage our partners and have strong collaboration with them to help protect their communities and the infrastructure that serves them,” Gibson said.
PG&E’s meteorology team improving fire forecasting
As they prep for the season, both Vegetation Management and Emergency Management lean heavily on PG&E’s Meteorology Services team and its new initiative to improve fire forecasting.
Meteorology Services is using high-resolution weather forecast data from the PG&E Operational Mesoscale Modeling System (POMMS), along with the National Fire Danger Rating System, to produce daily fire danger ratings for the PG&E service area. Meteorology Services then partners with Geographic Information Systems and Transmission System Operations to release local maps of fire danger ratings in specific areas. About 600 members of the electric operations and vegetation management teams receive the forecasts first thing each morning.
In areas of very high or extreme fire danger, the PG&E Fire Prevention Plan goes into effect. Measures include limits on off-road driving in PG&E fleet vehicles and bans on welding in the field. Operations will also suspend remote line testing, which it uses to assess outage causes. If a wire is on the ground, sending a test charge could spark a grass fire.
The POMMS-driven forecasts are “a new tool we’re using to try to get one step ahead of things,” Voss said. “We want to understand when and where the high fire danger times are and adjust our behavior to mitigate risks.”
While PG&E officials do everything possible to fight fire season before it begins, they said customers can cut risks as well.
In rural areas, that means keeping areas within 100 feet of the home clear of diseased, dying or dead vegetation.
Email Currents at Currents@pge.com.