A transmission line owned by Pacific Gas & Electric is being eyed as a possible cause of a devastating wildfire in Sonoma County that broke out Oct. 23, despite the utility conducting a public-safety power shut-off at the time—the latest complication in the state's effort to protect its residents from deadly fires caused by utility infrastructure.
"We should not have to be here," Gov. Gavin Newsom said at an Oct. 25 news conference, citing "years and years of greed, years and years of mismanagement."
"They simply did not do their jobs. It took us decades to get here, but we will get out of this mess."
In the lower part of the state, Southern California Edison had shut off about 14,300 customer accounts in five counties in the Los Angeles area as of early evening Oct. 25, and was considering additional shut-offs to 133,000 customers in the region. Newsom said the state had secured a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant to fight the Tick Fire in Los Angeles County, among other fires that were occurring. The grant will assist local, state and tribal agencies responding to the fire to apply for 75-percent reimbursement of their eligible fire-suppression costs, Newsom said in a news release. A possible cause of the Tick Fire has not been identified.
In Northern California, northeast of Geyserville in Sonoma County, the Kincade Fire was raging the morning of Oct. 25, at about 22,000 acres and 5 percent contained, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Steep and rugged terrain was making containment difficult, leading to much usage of aircraft to fight the fire. Nearly 1,300 personnel are engaged in the battle and several towns have been evacuated.
Evidence in the Kincade Fire is pointing to PG&E's Tower 001/006, which serves the Geysers complex of geothermal power facilities. PG&E told the California Public Utilities Commission that its 230-kV Geysers No. 9 Lakeville line relayed and did not reclose at about 9:20 p.m. on Oct. 23. At about 7:30 the next morning, a PG&E employee patrolling the line observed that Cal Fire officials had taped off the area around Tower 001/006.
"On-site Cal Fire personnel brought to the Troubleman's attention what appeared to be a broken jumper on the same tower," PG&E told the CPUC in the report.
On the day the Kincade Fire began, PG&E had conducted a PSPS for about 178,000 customer accounts in the Sierra foothills and North Bay area—about 15 counties. It had shut off about 28,000 customer accounts in Sonoma County at about 3 p.m. on Oct. 23, including in Geyserville and the surrounding area, but had not de-energized the larger transmission facilities.
"Those transmission lines were not de-energized because forecast weather conditions, particularly wind speeds, did not trigger the PSPS protocol," PG&E said. "The wind speeds of concern for transmission lines are higher than those for distribution."
The situation is likely to put new urgency into the public conversation around PSPS. State officials have chastised PG&E to more specifically target the outages and better inform customers, but the newest event indicates that fires can occur even during a shut-off.
PG&E's latest PSPS came after warnings from Newsom and CPUC President Marybel Batjer that the utility needs to better inform its customers and lower the impact of the power shut-offs.
Newsom wrote PG&E CEO Bill Johnson Oct. 22, urging him to adopt recent directives issued by the CPUC after the last power shut-off plunged up to 2 million Californians into darkness (see CEM No. 1561).
"While the immediate goal should be to better manage the current anticipated PSPS event, PG&E's short-term objectives should include steps to ensure that as few people as possible are impacted by any future PSPS decision," Newsom said in the letter.
Newsom said he was extending technical assistance from the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services, meteorological data from Cal Fire, and infrared-equipped aircraft to assist in power line safety inspections and restoration of power. He said Cal OES will activate state and regional operations centers to respond appropriately and ensure continuity of state agency operations that support California residents.
University of California, Hastings law professor Jared Ellias, who has been closely following the PG&E case, said the Kincade Fire victims will be pushed to the front of the line, and under bankruptcy law must be paid before any pre-bankruptcy fire victims are paid.
"The moment we have all been dreading in the PG&E Chapter 11 may have arrived, with PG&E equipment malfunctioning at the space and time that the Kincade fire began—if PG&E equipment did start this fire, Kincade victims will be administrative claimants," Ellias said in an Oct. 24 Twitter post.
PG&E's pre-bankruptcy claims were in the tens of billions, a financial strain that propelled the utility into bankruptcy in January.
PG&E said Oct. 25 it would be shutting off power to 850,000 customer accounts in 36 counties beginning the next day, due to predicted high-wind conditions.
High, potentially dangerous Santa Ana winds also prompted power to be cut to roughly 16,000 San Diego Gas & Electric customers in rural areas Oct. 25. The public-safety power shut-off affected communities including Julian, Ramona and Poway. Other communities in both San Diego and Orange counties were under red-flag warnings with the potential for more shut-offs, the utility said.
SDG&E opened seven community resource centers and two information centers to assist affected customers.