Reeling from the aftermath of the devastating Camp Fire caused by sparks from its equipment, Pacific Gas & Electric is rolling out a set of guidelines and procedures for turning off power in areas when and where fire danger can be severe — such as in Orinda.
The guidelines are outlined in the utility’s Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS) program, which PG&E East Bay Public Affairs Manager Tom Guarino explained at the July 16 City Council meeting.
PSPS is a three-pronged approach. The first uses real-time camera monitoring of wildfire risks near PG&E power lines, circuit breakers, poles and other equipment from its Wildfire Safety Operations Center in San Francisco. The utility has also added 1,300 weather stations in its service area from Bakersfield to the Oregon border.
In Orinda, through efforts spearheaded by Moraga-Orinda Fire Department (MOFD) Chief Dave Winnnacker, there are now two sets of 100 fire censors set up around the district that measure temperature and humidity in fire-prone areas. If the mini-cereal box sized censors show the temperature is rising and humidity is low, perfect conditions for a fire exist.
The second aspect of the program involves increasing the distance between vegetation near power lines to 12 feet from four feet, and other measures.
Guarino brought along a map that shows Orinda is surrounded by high fire threat areas and said PG&E gets many calls from local residents concerned about the risk. “You can’t sugar coat it,” Guarino says of the fire threat.
Under PSPS, the utility is going to pay for removing dead or dying trees at a cost of $500 to $2,000 per tree. In the past, if a tree needed to be removed the city or homeowner had to pay.
The third prong of PSPS involves replacing fire prone wooden power poles with metal ones and covering power lines.
If power does have to be shut off – something that Orinda’s never experienced – PG&E is working on plans to provide it to those who rely on oxygen tanks to breathe and others highly dependent on electricity by relocating them to facilities with back-up generators.
The Orinda Community Center, at 26 Orinda Way, will serve as a Community Resource Center in the event of a PSPS. It will be available to the public to charge devices and speak to city or PG&E staff. City Hall will be closed to the public during a PSPS.
Any way you slice it though, cutting off the juice will create hardships. Food in non-running refrigerators will spoil, traffic lights won’t blink and forget about binging on Netflix as wifi will also be kaput. And once electricity is shut off it can take three to five days to get it up and running again, according to Guarino.
Winnacker says Orinda residents can dramatically reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires by creating a defensible space around their homes. He points out that Orinda residents are required to cut grass and weeds to less than 3 feet; trim trees so there’s a minimum of 5 feet of separation between ground fuels and the lowest limbs; and maintain roadside vegetation so it doesn’t encroach or overhang roads and driveways.
Eric Rein, MOFD’s emergency preparedness coordinator, says even though Orinda has never had a wildfire, the increasing size of blazes in recent years statewide is troubling. “We keep breaking these very uncomfortable records. No place is immune from the ravages of mega-fires,” says Rein who echoes Winnacker’s warning about cutting back dead or dry vegetation near homes.
“We need to be paying attention to managing the wildland fuels,” says Rein. “If it’s there to burn, nature’s going to burn it. It doesn’t care who planted it.”
But despite PG&E’s and MOFD’s best intentions, some Orinda residents don’t think the fire department is spending enough in Orinda to prevent wildfires. Orindan Steve Cohn says MOFD should spend up to $300 for each of Orinda’s 7000 homes to clear fire-prone vegetation at a cost of $2 million.
He asserts funds are not available for this because Orindans are picking up the slack for Moragans who don’t pay enough in parcel taxes to pay for stepped-up fire mitigation in Orinda where the threat is greater.
Currently Moraga, with a lower tax base, pays six cents per parcel to support the two-city fire department but could pay a maximum rate of 30 cents, something the MOFD board would have to vote for. If they did, Cohn says the additional $2 million needed for fire prevention efforts in Orinda could be raised.
“The Orinda council and the MOFD board are providing the residents of Moraga with bargain rates for emergency services, putting Orinda citizens at risk,” says Cohn.
To learn more about what to do in case of a power shut-off, go to http://bit.ly/2YT16UW.
Paul Kilduff is a freelance writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
How to Prepare
Update your PG&E account information and sign up for alerts at www.pge.com/mywildfirealerts.
Sign up for Orinda Police Nixle Alerts at https://local.nixle.com/.
Sign up for notifications from the Contra Costa County Office of the Sheriff’s Community Warning System at https://cwsalerts.com/registration/.
Visit www.cityoforinda.org for updated information.