As the traditional height of fire season approaches — these lightning fires we saw in August were an early-season surprise — PG&E says it will be conducting "accelerated" inspections of transmission lines starting in areas of Marin and Sonoma counties by drone and helicopter.
PG&E is barely a month out of its emergence from 18 months of bankruptcy proceedings, and not quite a year out from the last destructive wildfire, the Kincade Fire, that's been attributed to its power lines. The company has paid out many billions to fire victims and insurers, and a federal judge repeatedly excoriated the company for power-grid maintenance practices that have repeatedly resulted in power lines breaking and sparking in windy conditions, leading to death and destruction.
Now, as September arrives with the specter of more Red Flag Warnings, Diablo winds, and public-safety power shutoffs (PSPS), PG&E says it will be speeding up its System Inspections Program beyond what regulations typically allow, in order to prevent future fires.
It always seems like too little, too late with PG&E, and it's baffling that such an "accelerated" effort would have been done in 2018 or 2019, after the deadly wildfires that ravaged Sonoma, Napa and several other counties in October 2017, all attributable to PG&E's aging infrastructure.
As KPIX reports, residents in the inspection areas have likely received notifications that drones or helicopters may be flying overhead, via postcards in the mail.
PG&E has separated inspection areas into Tier 2 (elevated fire risk) and Tier 3 (extreme fire risk), and pledged to complete inspections on all Tier 3 areas by the end of this year (again, too little, too late), in addition to one-third of Tier 2 lines — a total of 15,000 miles of transmission lines. The utility also says it is making efforts at "hardening" the equipment in high-risk areas so that it is less vulnerable to weather and high winds.
Any "high-priority" conditions on the lines, like support structures or equipment that appears aged or ready to fail, will be repaired immediately, PG&E says.
Short of putting every one its power lines underground, or shoring up every single utility pole to resist winds upward of 60 miles per hour, it seems like broken power lines are an inevitability as California faces ever more extreme versions of these late-fall winds — called the Santa Ana winds in Southern California, and the Diablo winds here. As the Washington Post reported last fall, the wind events appear to be worsening, with one 30-hour blast of 50+ mph winds last October, which exponentially expanded the size of the Kincade Fire, being far more extreme than the eight-hour wind event that helped fuel the first night of the Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa two years earlier.
And the winds that fueled the early November 2018 Camp Fire seemed unprecedented as well.
The weather pattern that creates these winds combines an area of high pressure to the north and west of Colorado, itself created by low pressure air being driven south by the jet stream from Alaska and Canada, which pushes out over the flats of Nevada and Utah, warms up and collides with low pressure on the California coast. In Southern California, the warm air is pulled forcefully into the valleys, while in Northern California, the winds tend to be highest along ridges and mountains.
PG&E will be spending this first week of September concentrating on the areas of Bolinas, Novato, San Rafael, and Sausalito in Marin County; and Petaluma, Lakeville, Fulton, Santa Rosa, Windsor, Healdsburg (Fitch Mountain), Sonoma, Boyes Hot Springs, and Agua Caliente in Sonoma County.
Drone and helicopter flights are expected daily between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. After the first two weeks of September, it's unclear where the inspection schedule will lead, but the East Bay and South Bay likely have some flyovers to look forward to as well.
Photo: Victor B.