The processes of shutting down electrical service to certain areas during high wildfire risk conditions were outlined by representatives of two utilities Tuesday at the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors meeting, but the issue is scheduled to come back to answer a number of questions raised by the board and public.
Questions include whether power can be restored for short periods in dayslong shutdowns and how the utilities are publicizing the program, getting residents to update their contact information and assembling lists of those with special medical needs.
Other questions raised include how many additional stations and cameras are being added in the county to monitor weather conditions, what infrastructure improvements the utilities are making and what mitigation measures are being considered for the unique conditions in Cuyama Valley.
No specific date was set for the utilities and county staff to return with answers to those and other issues raised during the hearing in the Joseph Centeno Betteravia Government Administration Building in Santa Maria.
Representatives of Pacific Gas and Electric Co., which provides electric service to most of the county, and Southern California Edison Co., which serves a small portion of the South Coast, explained how they’re trying to prevent a wildfire from igniting from their equipment.
They also outlined the process of determining when a power shutdown will take place and the notification steps they will take leading up to that shutdown.
“As you know, a new normal of fire and weather is upon us,” said Eric Daniels representing PG&E, who said the company is addressing the changing conditions with increased weather monitoring and forecasting, system inspections and system “hardening.”
PG&E already has “a wealth of monitoring and forecasting” resources, Daniels said, which are being augmented with 1,300 weather stations and 600 video cameras in high-fire-risk locations throughout the company’s service area.
He added that the high-risk areas are provided by the state and range from Tier 1 with the lowest risk up to Tier 3 with the highest risk.
Most of Santa Barbara County is Tier 2, with a few small areas of Tier 3, he said.
Daniels noted the state recently increased the required distance between transmission lines and vegetation from 18 inches to 4 feet, but PG&E’s goal is 12 feet in high fire areas.
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The company is also working with private property owners to remove dead and dying trees adjacent to PG&E power lines.
Daniels said deciding when power will be shut off won’t be a random decision but will be determined by an analysis of high temperatures, low humidity, high winds, the amount of fuel on the ground and the predictions of weather forecasters.
“The communication machine will start to operate at the 48-hour level,” he said, as warnings are sent out that a power shutdown may be coming two days before an anticipated set of conditions.
Those expected conditions will be re-evaluated at 24 hours, when the PG&E team will begin directly communicating with customers that a power outage is likely.
Daniels said that’s why it’s important for customers to go to the PG&E website to update their contact information.
In response to board questions, Daniels said there’s no way of telling how long it will take for power to be restored, as that decision will rely on the weather conditions and an inspection of the transmission system, which could take varying amounts of time depending on location and terrain.
Asked if the company would be funding cooling centers for residents who find themselves without air-conditioning or even fans when the power is cut off, Daniels said such centers would be the responsibility of counties and cities.
“We’ll have community resource centers, which are not cooling centers in the traditional sense,” he said.
Fourth District Supervisor Peter Adam said society bears the blame for all the extra precautions utility companies are taking and are being forced into bankruptcy by the lawsuits filed over utility-caused wildfires.
“We should look in the mirror,” he said. “We don’t like controlled burns, we don’t like cattle grazing, we don’t like fire breaks and we don’t like cutting new roads. … We’ve created this buildup of fuels that creates these horrendous fires.”