NAPA, Calif. — Atop an electrical pole overlooking grapevines, Pacific Gas & Electric recently installed a piece of equipment that will allow it to quickly turn off power to this part of California’s wine country when conditions for a wildfire are just right.
As long as a basketball pole and wide as a backboard, the gear is a small but critical part of the utility’s yearslong, multibillion-dollar plan to prevent the kind of fires that have killed scores of people, destroyed tens of thousands of homes and businesses and, last year, sent PG&E into bankruptcy.
Across Northern and Central California, where PG&E serves 16 million people, thousands of utility workers and contractors are scrambling up poles, trimming trees, installing video cameras, setting up weather stations and making other improvements to a grid that, in some areas, is more than a century old and has been poorly maintained. The importance of their work is underscored by how quickly spring greenery has turned into brittle, brown brush across much of the region.
PG&E is making an aggressive effort to reduce the risk of fires, and recently agreed to show a reporter and a photographer some of the results. Over the course of the day, we drove a couple of hundred miles and made a half-dozen stops across Napa and Sonoma Counties, inspecting recently completed upgrades and watching crews in orange vests, hard hats and masks work on power lines and the trees around them.
All told, the company has committed to spending $9.5 billion from 2020 to 2022 on its wildfire mitigation plan, according to state regulators.
If that seems like a lot, it’s because of the extent of PG&E’s operations in areas that the state deems to be at high-risk for wildfires — areas where the utility has enough power lines to more than wrap around the Earth. Contact between a live power line and a dying tree could set off the next Camp Fire, the 2018 blaze started by PG&E equipment that killed scores and destroyed the town of Paradise. There is so much work to be done that the company’s recently departed chief executive said last year that it could take as long as 10 years.
“What keeps us up at night is the exposure, how many miles, how many things could go wrong,” said Matthew Pender, the director of PG&E’s community wildfire safety program. “It only takes one tree.”
Among the vulnerable areas are the fabled vineyards of Napa and Sonoma, some of which have burned in wildfires as recently as last year. PG&E’s relationship with residents and businesses in the area has been strained by those fires and the company’s decision to shut power off to prevent fires.
One site we visited was a wooden electrical pole along the scenic Silverado Trail, at the foot of a dry mountain and in the shadow of trees dying from woodpecker damage. Our guides noted that a crew installed the switch on the pole just two weeks earlier. The device will allow PG&E’s employees working in a distant control center to cut electricity to the immediate area while maintaining power along other segments of the power line. That will help the company be more surgical about cutting off power than it was last year when it blacked out millions of people for days on end when fire danger was high.
“The tinder box is where we don’t want electricity running during extreme situations, high winds and such,” Mr. Pender said. “We are targeting these switches to allow us to separate the safe areas from the dangerous areas.”
Brian Malk owns the 12-acre property where the pole stands. Although he recognizes that PG&E’s work may avoid the need for widespread blackouts, he fears that even efforts to cut off power more surgically could cripple the dream he has turned into a viable business over the last two decades, Malk Family Vineyards.
“You’ve got wine in climate-controlled rooms,” Mr. Malk said. “In summer, if they turn off the power, you’re in trouble. You need the power to run the motors in the wells. You need the power to pump the water into the house and wet the area.”
He has so little faith that PG&E’s fixes will protect his vines from being decimated in the next big fire that he is arming his vineyards with sprinklers that can spray water up 50 yards away, buying backup generators and keeping grasses trimmed by allowing a neighbor’s cattle to graze on his land.
Wildfires burned more than 40,000 acres in the state during the first six months of the year — 6,000 more than the same period last year, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. And after drier conditions than usual in Northern California through the winter and the spring, forecasters expect temperatures to remain above normal, significantly elevating the threat of fires going into late summer and fall.
Early this month, PG&E emerged from bankruptcy — for the second time in two decades — after resolving an estimated $30 billion in liabilities from fires caused by its equipment. Another devastating fire could throw PG&E into economic turmoil and renew calls by its many critics for California lawmakers to break it up or turn it into a government-run or customer-owned utility. A big fire would also test the capacity of a new $20 billion state fund to help utilities cover the cost of fires caused by their equipment.
Near Calistoga, a town about 30 miles north of Napa, Irvin McCallum, a PG&E foreman, and his five-member team were installing equipment that can sense damage to a power line and shut off power automatically. The equipment is based on technology adopted from Australia, which has also had severe wildfire problems.
Mr. McCallum and his crew normally work in Ukiah, more than an hour north of Calistoga. But in PG&E’s effort to protect some of its most vulnerable electrical lines, Mr. McCallum’s team was dispatched to install the new sensor for testing on a stretch of the grid where Mount St. Helena rises above fields where donkeys graze. “I’m impressed with how much work we’re doing as a company,” he said.
But critics of PG&E contend that the company has moved at a plodding pace and faltered at seemingly ever turn. They point to an August report by a court-appointed monitor, which identified “systemic” issues in PG&E’s fire-mitigation work, including a nearly 50 percent shortfall in identifying fire hazards. The report, part of the utility’s criminal probation from a 2010 gas pipeline explosion that killed eight people, also noted that the company’s power lines had come in contact with trees and shrubs that contractors said they had cleared.
PG&E executives have acknowledged past safety lapses and have pledged to make sweeping changes, many of which courts, lawmakers and regulators have demanded. The company recently replaced a majority of its board members and named an interim chief executive.
Just last month, the California Public Utilities Commission approved the latest wildfire-prevention strategies by PG&E and other utilities. “It all is going to come down to how they perform in the moment,” Rachel Peterson, the commission’s deputy executive director for safety policy and enforcement, said of PG&E’s work to reduce fire risks. “We simply won’t know until the first event actually happens.”
In Calistoga, the company’s representatives were keen to show a microgrid powered by a diesel generator to keep the lights on for about 800 customers when PG&E shuts off power in the area to prevent fires. (Several other microgrids are nearly ready elsewhere in the company’s service area.)
Parts of Calistoga were under evacuation orders last October when the Kincade Fire destroyed almost 400 buildings and injured four people. State investigators said Thursday that the fire had been caused by PG&E’s equipment.
Scott Newman’s family lost six homes and three agricultural buildings on a 500-acre property just west of Calistoga. The Newmans have lived on the property since 1962 and are rebuilding.
Mr. Newman regularly checks a PG&E website that features data from the 700 or so new weather stations that the company has installed across its territory, and he tries to keep neighbors informed about potential fire hazards. He said the success of PG&E’s safety upgrades was crucial for his family and others relying on agriculture.
“PG&E does have to do better,” Mr. Newman said. “I do see their efforts. I hope that I’m not just being naïve. Frankly, I’ve got a lot of rebuilding to do. I don’t have the time to check on them.”