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It’s a simple strategy: Let technology tell you exactly when to cut power in weather conditions that can fuel a major blaze. But utilities and regulators still have to learn how to do it right.
The massive wildfires being fanned by hot and dry Santa Ana winds this week in parts of Southern California have written the latest tragic chapter in the story of the blazes that have incinerated vast swaths of the Golden State this year, destroying homes and businesses and displacing thousands of residents in the process.
The historic fires have also injected new urgency into the debate on how best to tackle similarly devastating wildfires in the future.
The exact causes of the Southern California wildfires have remained a mystery but, as is the case with the blazes that scorched Northern California’s Wine Country in October, authorities will be looking closely at the role downed power lines may have played in igniting the fires. Those downed power lines have started spectacularly devastating California wildfires in the past.
But the power line problem has a positive side, according to Cliff Mass, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington and a popular weather blogger. In regions vulnerable to wildfires across the nation, Mass contends that fierce winds will blow and dry weather will brown brush and overgrowth, but it takes a spark to start a fire. And the problem of surging power lines sent to the ground snaking and spitting sparks can be conquered by smart policy informed by advanced technology.
“You have to cut power strategically in emergency conditions,” Mass told Route Fifty in a recent interview. “It’s not a new idea. San Diego is already doing that to prevent fires."
Mass said that weather and climate modeling has jumped in quality so much over the last five years due to increases in computing power and advances in imaging technology that weather and wind patterns can be seen clearly as they develop, providing plenty of time to take preventive action.
“The thing about the Wine Country fires was the unusual winds,” he said. In an Oct. 30 blog post he explained that, on the day of the fires, the course and speed of the Wine Country winds as they reacted to topography and ground temperatures should have set off alarm bells in the mind of any observers monitoring them.
“Today, we can pinpoint ahead of time when and where to cut power, and we know how long to keep it off—usually relatively short amounts of time,” Mass said. “And cutting power temporarily in a fire-prone section of a county is going to be a much cheaper solution than burying all the power lines,” he said.
Mass said there is danger in writing off destructive wildfires as unavoidable acts of nature or lamentable symptoms of climate change. Governments and power providers can prevent the worst from happening by leveraging cutting-edge monitoring technology to guide power shutdowns and by doing the kind of tech updates that prevent short-circuited systems designed to combat blackouts from trying to turn themselves back on when power lines go down.
“Surging power lines ignite these fires,” he said. “It's one of the solvable problems that people aren't addressing. Municipalities have significant regulatory powers over utilities. I think they could require change,” he said.
In a Los Angeles Times piece published last week, reporter Bettina Boxall outlined steps that one Southern California utility, San Diego Gas and Electric, has taken over the last decade to prevent its equipment from sparking in windy wildfire conditions.
The utility built a network of 170 observation stations that collect and transmit data on wind, temperature and humidity.
“When the Santa Anas start blowing, the company’s three meteorologists monitor the network around the clock,” Boxall wrote. “Since the program started, SDG&E says, it has turned off power to portions of its distribution system 16 times for public safety reasons. The shut-offs have affected a relatively small number of customers, a total of 1,000, who received telephone alerts of impending outages.”
Of course, there is risk involved in strategic power shut-offs.
In a ruling issued in 2012, four years after SDG&E applied to the California Public Utility Commission for the express authority to cut power to prevent wildfires, the commissioners wrote that the company had the authority but that, after a shut-off, it must justify the decision to cut power and demonstrate that it properly notified customers in advance, with an eye in particular to customers with disabilities and medical conditions.
Donald Cutler, a spokesperson for Pacific Gas and Electric, which powers much of Northern California, told Route Fifty that during the Wine Country fires, the utility cut power to portions of its system in response to requests made by first responders and public service agencies and in reaction to “specific safety conditions [PG&E personnel] observe[d] on the ground.”
He also noted the kind of safety risks strategic power shut-offs can introduce.
“[P]roactively de-energizing electrical lines . . . affect first responders and the operation of critical facilities such as hospitals, schools, water pumps and other essential services needed in response to any emergency, and especially in response to wildfires.”
Cutler said PG&E’s “proactive de-energizing policy is completely aligned with all current regulations” and that PG&E “will continue to comply with any changes to the regulations that may be made by the California Public Utilities Commission in the future.”
Judges, lawmakers and regulators in California currently are considering updating a range of wildfire-related policies, including where to lay the financial responsibility for damage created by wildfires caused by sparking utility equipment and what kind of changes in land-use zoning, power-grid technologies and utility prevention strategies might have to be made to prevent future catastrophes.
In the coming years, California utilities and state and local authorities will be learning how best to cut energy in order to secure it.
As the Thomas Fire races across Ventura County, The New York Times reported that power failures in the area cut electricity to at least 186,000 residents and made it difficult for the firefighters working there to battle the flames, mainly by hampering communications among firefighting crews and with the public. Coordinating crucial air- and ground-team operations, for example, suffers when electricity fails, added Caley Fisher, spokesperson for the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, which is sending resources to help battle the Southern California blazes.
John Tomasic is a journalist based in Seattle.