California agency slams PG&E’s fire plan, cites Zogg Fire ‘mistakes’

The Zogg Fire blows up in Shasta County on the afternoon of Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020.

Pacific Gas & Electric Co’s 2021 wildfire mitigation plan has come under fire for not doing enough to prevent the type of mistakes that “may have caused” last fall’s Zogg Fire, which killed four people in Shasta County.

The utility’s wildfire mitigation plan lays out the steps PG&E plans to take to prevent causing wildfires.

But the California Public Utilities Commission’s Public Advocates office said the commission should not approve PG&E’s plan because it comes up short in four areas, according to Maya Chupkov, a spokeswoman for the advocates office.

Those areas the office identified were around:

  • Vegetation management
  • Contractor management and performance
  • Inspections in high risk fire areas
  • Grid “hardening” program

PG&E is not properly managing contractors that trim trees around power lines to assure they address the areas that need trimming the most, she said. The utility also has also not kept track of contractors’ performance, she said.

She said PG&E is focusing its tree trimming program around power lines in areas that are less at risk of wildfire, Chupkov said.

“PG&E trimmed trees in places where the fire threat is less serious, instead of the neighborhoods with high wildfire risk. And these mistakes may have contributed to the Zogg Fire that killed four people,” she said.

Two people, including one PG&E employee, work earlier this month in the area where the Zogg Fire started. The two would not identify themselves and would not say what they were doing in the area.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection concluded the Zogg Fire was started when a large gray pine tree fell into a distribution line off Zogg Mine Road in Igo, igniting the blaze.

The fire, which started Sept. 27, burned more than 56,000 acres. The blaze also destroyed 204 buildings and damaged another 27, according to Cal Fire.

This is the third year PG&E has prepared a wildfire mitigation plan. In the wake of the deadly Camp Fire in Butte County, which killed 85 people, the utility has been required to prepare one annually. PG&E was also found at fault for starting that fire.

The advocates office also took PG&E to task this year for not using drones and helicopters to do further inspections of distribution lines in high risk fire areas, Chupkov said.

The Zogg Fire burned parts of historic Ono including the Ono Grange (pictured) on Sunday (Sept. 27, 2020).

The utility also is moving too slowly on its grid “hardening” program and focusing on lower fire risk areas, she said.

Hardening is intended to make PG&E facilities less prone to causing fires. Hardening can include replacing bare overhead conductors with covered ones, installing stronger poles or burying power lines, according to PG&E.

“But at PG&E’s proposed pace, it will take more than 20 years to reach the areas with the highest wildfire risk,” Chupkov said.

The utility plans to harden 180 line miles in 2021, according to the plan.

Kristi Jourdan, a PG&E spokeswoman, said in an email that she appreciated the comments from the advocates office and others.

“We all share the goal of addressing the growing wildfire risk in California, and we look forward to working with our regulators, community partners and other stakeholders to develop and refine our wildfire mitigation plan. PG&E is focused on further improving the quality and consistency of our work as we strive to uphold our most important responsibility, which is the safety of our customers and the communities we are privileged to serve,” Jourdan’s email says.

The wildfire mitigation plan also says PG&E plans to triple the number of employees verifying work done by adding 200 quality inspectors “to increase our ability to verify that vegetation management was completed to meet or exceed state and federal standards.”

The plan says PG&E also intends to focus it vegetation management and tree trimming on areas most at wildfire risk. The utility, however, acknowledges shortcomings last year.

“In 2020, however, PG&E did not properly manage and prioritize the execution of system inspections in the highest risk areas. In some cases, assets outside of HFTDs (high fire threat districts) were inspected before higher wildfire risk assets had been completed,” the plan says.

The plan says PG&E has installed 1,000 weather stations throughout its Northern and Central California service area and plans to install another 300 in 2021. The utility also has installed 333 high definition cameras, wtih another 135 planned.

PG&E’s 2021 fire mitigation plan says it learned from 2019 to make its public safety power shutoffs “smaller” and “shorter” in 2020.

Power shutoffs are aimed at reducing wildfires by cutting power in areas where there is a high risk of trees and limbs being blown into power lines by high winds.

“Those efforts were successful, with 2020 events being 55 percent smaller and over 40 percent shorter once the severe weather passed,” the 2021 fire plan says.

The Zogg Fire broke out on a windy day in September. And while the power was shut off in other areas of Shasta County because of wind concerns, the electrical lines in the area of the Zogg Fire were left energized, PG&E said.

As part of a solution for falling trees and limbs, the plan also said the utility plans to use technology that rapidly reduces current flow when line problems are detected.

It has also developed a system “that aims to use fraction-of-a-second technologies to detect objects approaching energized power lines and respond quickly to shut off power before object impact.”

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