Unless you live under a rock, you have probably heard about PG&E, the California utility company, shutting power off to over 800,000 people in Northern California beginning Wednesday at 12 am. The purpose of the power shut off was to prevent more wildfire disasters like the 2017 Tubbs Fire and the 2018 Paradise Fire, which combined killed over 100 people and destroyed thousands of homes.
A weather event common to Northern California in October was predicted to occur and was the same type of event that led to the Tubbs and Paradise fires. These types of weather events came with the threat of very high wind speeds that caused power lines to spark and caused the fires. It was believed that by shutting off power to high risk areas, the chance of more tragic wildfires would be lessened.
So what is the real story behind PG&E shutting off the power? Was it truly to protect the people or was it something else?
OCTOBER WEATHER & WILDFIRES
High wind weather events are nothing new in either Northern or Southern California in October or other times of the year. High pressure weather systems swing down from Oregon and set up over Nevada with the prevailing winds blowing to the west into California. High winds and hot temperatures combine to create dangerous conditions conducive to wildfires.
Wind related firestorms are not unusual in October. In Oct 1991, there was the Oakland Firestorm which destroyed thousands of homes and killed many people. 1993 saw the Malibu firestorm which burned homes all the way to the sea.
The only reason that we do not hear more about devastating wildfires is because the size and loss of homes and life do not “warrant” media coverage beyond the state.
TUBBS & PARADISE WILDFIRES
In 2017, the Tubbs Fire and in 2018, the Paradise Fire, were particularly devastating wild fires. Caused by the same type of wind driven events, the fires could not be stopped until they pretty much burnt themselves out.
The Tubbs Fire was caused by PG&E lines sparking and catching vegetation under the lines on fire. The wind speeds and direction caused the fire to cover 10 miles or so in just a couple of hours. The wind drove the fire uphill and then into the Santa Rosa neighborhood of Fountain Grove, a subdivision of multi-million dollar homes nestled among essentially forest type land. Within a couple of hours, the neighborhood was destroyed.
The fire continued its sweep of everything in its path, destroying the blue collar subdivision of Coffee Park, a more typical area of homes without all of the trees and growth that Fountain Grove had. For Coffee Park, it was the wood shake roofs that caught fire from wind driven embers that caused the initial damage and then destruction of the homes.
The Paradise Fire started in similar circumstances. High winds sparked wildfires that burned through Paradise, a town built in a forest with most homes having land filled with trees susceptible to fire.
PG&E AND CUTTING GROWTH UNDER POWER LINES
The recent wildfires were caused by vegetation under power lines that had not been cut back. High winds led to power line sparking, which caught the vegetation on fire.
People have blamed environmentalists for preventing the cutting of vegetation that led to the fire. Others have blamed the California government for the problems.
I have a friend in the PG&E management who recently retired after 40 years with the utility. His insight and knowledge provides for a different reason why the undergrowth problem has occurred.
Per “John,” PG&E is required by law to keep the lines free and clear from obstruction, both on the ground and in the air. This includes cutting trees and limbs and cutting back brush underneath the towers and lines that could catch fire.
It is John’s contention that PG&E has not complied with the law for one basic reason, the cost of the upkeep was “worth” the risk of wildfires and the damage that they caused.
In years past, the risk was less with wildfires causing massive death and destruction. Now, with people encroaching more and more into wilderness areas, risk has increased markedly.
On January 29, 2019, PG&E filed for Bankruptcy protection after the Paradise Fire destroyed the city and killed over 80 people with over 6700 residences were lost along with 260 commercial buildings. Estimated dollars in damages owed between the different fires runs about $8.4 billion at last accounting in September.
PG&E lobbied the government after the 2017 fires to allow it to raise power rates on consumers to pay for the damages consumers suffered in those fires. In Sep, 2018, the bill was passed and signed. So thanks to Jerry Brown and the CA government, the PG&E customers will have to pay the costs of the damages resulting from PG&E own malfeasance in the 2107 fires.
Sadly, a month later the Paradise fire occurred. PGE wanted to get permission to raise rates for the damages from that fire, but were prevented from doing so. So PG&E filed for bankruptcy protection.
SHUT OFF POLICY
After the Tubbs fire, PG&E sought permission from the PUC (Public Utilities Commission) to shut off power to communities at risk when weather events warranted. Given permission, PG&E had shut off power on a couple of occasions in 2018. But for the Paradise fire, they did nothing and got burnt for it.
With the coming weather event this week, PG&E took no chances. They elected to shut off power to hundreds of thousands of people in Northern California.
Looking at the maps of areas that had power shut off, I and others had real concerns. There were many areas that did not warrant a need for having the shut down, especially residential areas. Yet they had power turned off.
Curiously, many of the areas that had power shut off were very influential areas. Communities that backed up to Open Space, hills, and rural areas were some of the wealthiest areas in their cities, and they were disproportionately affected.
In my particular area, power was not shut off. There was no real threat even with high winds. But of note, there were two fires that did occur, about 15 miles each, east and west. The area where one fire started was not the cause of the wind. The other area had the fire start AFTER the power had been shut off to the area.
As of Friday morning, there are now two fires in Southern California that are burning and causing loss of homes. The one in the north Los Angeles area has forced evacuations of over 100,000 people and 12,000 homes. Power had not been shut off in those areas.
Though the Santa Ana winds are blowing fiercely, reports are that NEITHER fire was the result of power lines sparking. The Santa Ana’s have only served to spread the fires after starting. You can’t stop the wind, so what can you do?
It is my belief that PG&E acted for reasons other than what was claimed. Yes, the fear of having power lines spark and start fires is real, but if PG&E had been doing the brush cleanup as required by law, there would have been no need to cut off power in most areas.
Instead, I believe that there was a desire to hold their own consumers hostage, to take revenge for daring to suggest that PG&E should have to pay for all the damages from previous fires.
It is my wish and hope that PG&E is broken up while in bankruptcy and the pieces sold off to more responsible companies.