Without any advance warning or notice to anybody, including public safety agencies, Pacific Gas & Electric Company switched off North County power around 4 a.m. Tuesday, March 30, and it was restored at approximately 9:45 a.m.
I checked PG&E’s outage map on its website which shows current Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS). It showed the power had been cut from just south of Leggett down through Laytonville to Longvale, over west to Branscomb and east for maybe 15 miles or so. The entire Covelo area including thousands of acres of tribal land were also under the PSPS. Aside from the outage maps there was no explanation for the shutdown.
I was up prior to the 4 a.m. shutdown working on board packets for our monthly water board meeting. I’d gone out to the barn to give our horse a flake of alfalfa and some grain. It was a cold pre-dawn morning, the temperature at 33 degrees but conditions were calm. Later in the day, we’d get our usual mid-afternoon winds that mostly come through a western notch in the Coastal Range that forms the U-shaped contour of Long Valley, which is approximately 1,500 feet in elevation. But those winds came four or five hours after PG&E re-energized their lines.
I then remembered the federal judge overseeing Pacific Gas & Electric’s criminal probation (from the 2010 San Bruno gas line explosion) said last week that he is considering requiring the electrical monopoly to be more aggressive about de-energizing its electrical lines in high fire risk areas, a plan that news reports said could double the number of power outages for some Northern California counties over the next decade.
The judge’s proposal outlined during the hearing is the latest effort to prevent the utility’s equipment from igniting more deadly wildfires by reducing the likelihood that trees could fall into the utility’s long-neglected (as in at least a decade) electrical equipment. The ever-vigilant (contrasted with the never-vigilant California Public Utilities Commission) U.S. District Judge William Alsup is overseeing PG&E’s overhead infrastructure protective maintenance as part of the utility’s criminal probation after the natural gas lines blew up in San Bruno.
Judge Alsop signaled that he is seriously considering imposing tougher measures.
“My view is quite clear: We should save lives,” Alsup said in one of the stories I checked. “We don’t have the luxury to wait around. I am not open to the idea that we would kick the can down the road and study the problem to death.”
The PUC, which “regulates” PG&E, is opposing the additional power shut-offs, which it contends would impose undue hardship on about 900,000 people who live in the mostly rural counties of Mendocino, Trinity, Placer, Shasta, Tehama, and Madera. While on its face that may appear to be commendable public policy, keep in mind that for nearly a decade the “Public’s Watchdog” granted request after request by PG&E to defer and delay its statutory obligation to keep its overhead infrastructure free and clear of trees, overhanging limbs, brush, etc. In fact, the last extension granted by the PUC occurred one day prior to the infamous Wine Country fires six years ago
The federal court hearing, came a day after California fire investigators released a report concluding that a Shasta County wildfire that killed four people and destroyed more than 200 buildings last September was caused by a tree that fell into a PG&E power line. Alsup blasted PG&E during the hearing for not cutting down the tree that started that fire after its removal had been recommended in 2018 and described the utility as “grossly negligent.”
Under the stricter safety conditions Alsup is considering, PG&E estimated it would have to power down 45 separate times during the next decade, a 67 percent increase from the 27 PSPS outages forecast in that time under present procedures. The occurrence of deliberate power shutdowns would triple in Trinity County while doubling in Mendocino, Placer, Shasta, Tehama, and Madera. The outages would nearly double in three other rural counties: Butte, Nevada and El Dorado.
PG&E attorneys assured Alsup the utility shares the judge’s goal of reducing wildfire risks posed by its power lines as the company has budgeted billions of dollars into upgrading its equipment (of course, ratepayers are “sharing” the costs for the work).
(Jim Shields is the Mendocino County Observer’s editor and publisher, firstname.lastname@example.org, and is also the long-time district manager of the Laytonville County Water District. Listen to his radio program “This and That” every Saturday at 12 noon on KPFN 105.1 FM, also streamed live: http://www.kpfn.org.)