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article imagePublic Safety Power Shutoff not warranted said PG&E during fire

By Karen Graham     Nov 17, 2018 in Environment
On November 8, two hours before the deadly Camp Fire erupted in Butte County, California, The National Weather Service issued a "Red Flag Warning" for the region.
The weather service had recorded sustained winds of 32 mph blowing through the valleys east of Paradise, with gusts of up to 52 mph. Humidity had dipped to 22 percent, and the rural communities hadn’t seen significant rain since April.
With the utility company's criteria being met for a Public Safety Power Shutoff, the big question on everyone's mind today is why PG&E didn't shut off electrical power? This was enough to begin a preemptive shut down of power for the second time in the utility’s history.
But strangely enough, PG&E had been issuing warnings to residents in Butte and eight other counties that power could be interrupted Thursday morning - 48 hours ahead of the fire breaking out - yet PG&E opted to keep the electricity flowing.
The Camp Fire has effectively wiped Paradise  in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains  off t...
The Camp Fire has effectively wiped Paradise, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, off the map
Josh Edelson, AFP
What is PG*E's criteria for a Public Safety Power Shutoff?
According to a statement from PG&E, the company considers a combination of criteria, including:
*A Red Flag Warning declared by the National Weather Service
*Low humidity levels, generally 20 percent and below
*Sustained winds above approximately 25 mph and wind gusts in excess of approximately 45 mph
*Site-specific conditions such as temperature, terrain and local climate
*The condition of dry fuel on the ground and live vegetation (moisture content)
*On-the-ground, real-time observations from PG&E field crews
PG&E's action plan dates back to March, this year. On March 14, the utility inaugurated its new comprehensive Community Wildfire Safety Program. State regulators, local officials, and fire survivors have urged utilities to take this very action - particularly with wildfires increasing.
At the time, PG&E was already under investigation by state regulators after records released on the deadly Northern California wildfires in October 2017 showed that tree limbs or whole trees fell into power lines in the areas where many of the near-simultaneous fires began, whipped up by fierce dry winds.
Over 100 lawsuits — some filed by the counties of Mendocino, Napa, and Sonoma — have been filed against PG&E, blaming the company for the flames. Damage estimates top $10 billion for the October 2017 fires.
Napa in California is encircled by fires  says David Shew  a Calfire staff chief at a firefighting b...
Napa in California is encircled by fires, says David Shew, a Calfire staff chief at a firefighting base camp not far from the Rocca winery
Robyn Beck, AFP
First time Public Safety Power Shutoff used
On October 14, 2018, PG&E, California's biggest utility company, purposefully shut off electricity to nearly 60,000 customers in fear that predicted wind speeds could fuel another wildfire in Northern California.
Pat Hogan, a senior vice president of electric operations said in a statement the "unprecedented move to turn off power to so many customers was a last resort given the extreme fire danger conditions these communities are experiencing." Power was restored several days later as weather conditions returned to normal.
This leads up to November 8, and why the utility failed to execute its Public Safety Power Shutoff. “We don’t discuss details of ongoing investigations, but our investigations include assessment of operator decisions, such as (whether) to proactively shut-off power,” said Terrie Prosper, spokeswoman for the California Public Utilities Commission.
In a tweet at 3:14 p.m. Nov. 8, almost nine hours after the Camp Fire roared to life, PG&E announced it would not conduct a Public Safety Power Shutoff anywhere “as weather conditions did not warrant this safety measure.”
Strangely enough, after issuing warnings about a possible power shutoff two days before the fire broke out, PG&E spokeswoman Mayra Tostado said, “The forecasted conditions didn’t meet the criteria to initiate a Public Safety Power Shutoff in those areas, It is used under specific extreme weather conditions to further reduce the risk of wildfires and is not deployed as a response to an active fire.”
However, one day after the Camp Fire started, PG&E reported to state regulators that a transmission line malfunctioned near the origin of the fire. Was this the cause of the devastation that is still going on in Northern California? It is being investigated.
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Cal Fire
Thomas Scott, who has written about fire management in California’s wildland-urban interface and works with the UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources suggests the utility's hesitation in turning off the power on November 8 may have something to do with all the complaints PG&E received over the power shutoff in October.
“Any rationale they had for keeping the lines hot has tragically backfired for everyone involved,” he said. “Can’t understand what they were contemplating; perhaps they maintained power until the last possible moment because that action breeds unhappy customers and dangerous situations if power is turned off.”
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