Do Scheduled Power Blackouts Help To Stem California's Wildfires?
By David E. Hubler
Contributor, EDM Digest
On Aug. 5, 1949, 15 U.S. Forest Service smokejumpers landed in a remote area of Montana to battle a forest fire. Two hours later, 12 of them had burned to death from a “blowup.” In this case, the blowup was a sudden explosive, 2,000-degree firestorm 300 feet deep and 200 feet high.
The Mann Gulch Fire was one of the deadliest conflagrations in U.S. history.
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In the past 70 years, meteorologists, first responders, and especially early warning systems have greatly ameliorated the threats to life and property from hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes.
Yet despite advanced technology and artificial intelligence, we still cannot adequately predict when or where a wildfire will flare up. Nor can we quickly control the worst of them.
Nowhere is this more evident than in California, where seven of the state’s 10 most destructive wildfires have occurred in October – many fueled by monster winds, including Santa Ana gusts, as NBC Channel 7 affiliate in San Diego noted.
PG&E Orders Planned Power Outages to Prevent Sparking Wildfires
Over the past three years, however, some of California’s worst wildfires have been the result of equipment failures of the state’s largest utility, Pacific Gas and Electric. As a result, this year PG&E has ordered a series of planned – but controversial – power blackouts during very windy weather. The idea is if there is no power in the lines, there can be no sparks to ignite the dry grass and parched trees.
“More than 900,000 power customers – an estimated 2.5 million people – were in the dark at the height of the latest planned blackout, nearly all of them in PG&E’s territory in Northern and Central California,” CNBC said.
As of Monday evening, CNBC reported that, according to PG&E, “a little less than half of those [customers] had their service back. But some 1.5 million people in 29 counties will be hit with more shutoffs starting Tuesday because another round of strong winds is expected.”
Kincade Fire May Have Been Caused by Power Transmission Line Failure
Despite the draconian precautions, PG&E last week acknowledged that a transmission tower may have caused the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County, the heart of California’s wine country, an $8 billion annual retail industry.
As of Monday, only five percent of the fire was contained, “down from 10 percent, as firefighters fought more blazes that kicked up with the winds again late Sunday night — causing the fire’s breadth to jump from 54,000 acres to more than 66,000 (103 square miles),” the Mercury News added.
No injuries have been reported so far, the newspaper noted, although 94 structures were reportedly destroyed, including at least 31 homes and 17 structures were damaged. Officials say nearly 23,500 structures are considered threatened by the fire.
“We’re in a little bit of a defensive position with Mother Nature at the moment,” Cal Fire Division Chief Jonathan Cox told a press conference Sunday morning. According to the Mercury News, Cox said that “he doesn’t expect to fully contain the fire until Nov. 7.”
Sonoma County Residents Urged ‘Not to Get Too Complacent’ during Nice Weather
Cal Fire Captain and Public Information Officer Thomas Shoots told residents not to get too complacent. "The weather actually feels pretty nice out here right now; it's cool and that's almost a greater concern for us right now," Shoots said.
As firefighters fought to contain the largest blaze in the state, a brush fire that broke out early Monday morning along the 405 freeway near the Getty Center in Los Angeles quickly grew to more than 600 acres, the Los Angeles Times reported. “Thousands of people were ordered to evacuate some of the priciest enclaves on Earth,” the Times said.
Winds drove the flames south and west, deeper into Brentwood’s canyons, toward Pacific Palisades. “The steepness of the canyons drew the flames up in monstrous lashes,” the Times explained.
Earlier, Southern California Edison had cut off power to 25,000 customers. “The utility warned that it was considering disconnecting about 350,000 more as Santa Ana winds return midweek,” CNBC reported.
Whether scheduled power outages are a solution to California’s annual fire season remains to be seen. What we already know for certain is the scheduled blackouts are very unpopular, especially with residents who are not in the path of the fires. We also know that for those whose homes have gone up in flames, power outages are the equivalent of turning off an electric fan in the midst of a hurricane.