PG&E prepared to shut off power as a last resort to reduce wildfires

Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) told state regulators it will shut off power to reduce the risk of wildfires as a last resort, despite anticipating the need to do it more this fire season compared to the previous one.

The utility testified before the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) Tuesday along with representatives from CAL FIRE and the California Office of Emergency Services about its readiness plan for cutting power to its customers and efforts to reduce those events in the future.

"We know how disruptive it is to lose power," PG&E Chief Risk Officer Sumeet Singh said. "We’ve been working nonstop to ease the burden it has on our customers and community."

Still, PG&E estimates about five major public safety power shutoff (PSPS) events this year that each could last more than a day and a half, and affect up to 360,000 customers.

It puts much of the blame on the hotter, dryer conditions, including drought and climate change that pose an increased risk of wildfires.

Power lines have been blamed on roughly half of the most destructive fires in California history, according to the state.

Most recently the huge Dixie Fire, and smaller Fly Fire that merged with it in the Sierra Nevada may both have been sparked by trees falling on PG&E electric lines, records show.

CAL FIRE Chief Daniel Berlant said Red Flag Warning conditions could prompt a power shutoff as early as this week.

"Our firefighters have been on the front lines," Berlant said. "There’s a significant increase in fires this year that have burned more acres than where we were at the same time period last year."

To that end, PG&E boasted better weather forecasting, more undergrounding of lines and hardening and sectionalizing the grid in efforts to reduce catastrophic fires.

In deciding when and where to deenergize lines, the utility said it is now working to identify specific trees that could potentially strike lines. It’s also analyzing lines and targeting those considered higher risk of sparking a vegetation fire.

"We fully understand the tremendous responsibility we have," Singh said.

PG&E also stressed its improvements in mapping data to better notify customers and communities of potential PSPS events.

But regulators want to make sure cutting the power only occurs when absolutely necessary. That’s especially true for those who depend on electricity for life-saving medical equipment.

"At risk in a PSPS event are people’s lives and their livelihoods," CPUC President Marybel Batjer said. "The consequences of shutting off the power are far beyond inconsequential."

Commissioners acknowledged improvements over the past couple of years but made it clear to PG&E that is would be judged on outcomes and not simply just a readiness plan.

"PG&E has the responsibility to manage their grid responsibly," Batjer said. "And they have a duty to keep the safety and wellbeing of their customers as their top priority."

Brooks Jarosz is an investigative reporter for KTVU. Email him at and follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @BrooksKTVU