Brush fire season has become a thing of the past in California, with the potential for blazes turning into a year round thing. But, we are moving into one of the most dangerous times of year, with the combination of hot, dry winter and strong Santa Ana and sundowner winds.
Officials with Southern California Edison and PG & E met with Santa Barbara County Supervisors this week to outline one of the newest tools in efforts to reduce the threat, a program called Public Safety Power Shutoffs.
It’s utility companies shutting down power lines in high fire risk areas when the fire danger is extremely high. Edison has had versions of the program for eight years, but have only used it twice, on a small scale.
Power lines have been blamed for starting some of the massive brush fires in the state during the last few years, including Ventura and Santa Barbara County’s Thomas Fire.
Officials with the two utility companies which serve the Central and South Coasts say they are ramping up fire prevention efforts. They are expanding vegetation management efforts around power lines, stepping up patrols, adding webcams, and installing hundreds of remote weather stations.
Longer term, they are trying to make the power grid more fire resistant, with insulated lines. Many people ask about undergrounding power lines. She says while it’s an option in some cases, it can often be too expensive. But, should there be a combination of things like dry brush, low humidity, and high wind in the forecast, they might trigger a localized Public Safety Power Shutoff. Officials say they don’t take it lightly, and will use a combination of specialized weather forecast, line inspects, and a review of the situation in a community before triggering a shutdown.
The utilities are working with government agencies on issues like impacts on places like hospitals. Tougher is how you deal with homebound people who rely on power for medical equipment. They are trying to work with government agencies to develop a database, one which can be used to give people a 48 hour warning, Officials say the idea is to let people know before a shutdown so they can make arrangements to leave, or at least be aware they will be without power. They say it will be up to government agencies to open shelters if needed.
One question officials with the utilities couldn’t answer is how often they think shutoffs might happen. They say it’s up to nature. Utility company officials say if shutoffs are necessary, they will be focused on high risk areas, and not blanket regional shutdowns.