Flames burn near power lines in Sycamore Canyon as seen from West Mountain Drive in Montecito, Calif., in December 2017. (Santa Barbara County Fire)

Rolling Blackouts Could Protect You from Wildfires, But Are They Worth the Risk?

The devastation of climate-change induced wildfires is real and will continue to get worse as we see new fires eclipse previous fires in size, destruction and deaths. Shutting off the power will prevent some of these fires, but are the impacts acceptable?

California is embarking on a statewide experiment for which we have not fully planned. All the major utilities in California now have a Public Safety Power Shutdown (PSPS) plan that will give the public at best 48 hours’ notice that their power will be shut off for multiple days. These shutdowns will affect not only people who live in wildland areas, but also people who live on a circuit that traverses a wildland area. There is unequivocal agreement that California must reduce the number of destructive and deadly fires occurring in a climate-changing world. But is the cure worse than the disease? Most of the public is oblivious as to what is at stake and there is not consistency in what local governments will do to keep their communities safe from the multitude of impacts that will likely occur.

Background

California Public Resources Code[1] establish many requirements for utilities to follow to prevent powerline-caused fires. Even if the utility is following all of the rules, the utility is responsible for wildfire damage caused by their equipment. It is a doctrine known as “inverse condemnation.” Only California and Alabama have this use of inverse condemnation. Several of the recent deadly fires in California were caused from powerlines under this doctrine.

PSPS activated outages, authorized under the California Public Utility Commission[2], will occur during days identified as extreme fire days: days when the vegetation is dry, the winds are blowing, and the temperatures are high. Days we usually associate with Red Flag Warnings may now be days we associate as days without power.

The Impacts

PSPS impacts are significant. Most affected will be people who are dependent on electricity for medical devices such as oxygenator machines, dialysis and electric wheelchairs. The elderly and others will have no electricity to run needed air conditioning and fans on days of record-breaking heat. Nearly all gas stations in communities affected will have no power. Street signals, restaurant refrigeration, elevators and school classrooms will all be without power. People who physically cannot use stairs will be unable to make appointments and go to work because the elevator they rely on will be out of service. Residents with electric garage doors and electric gates will not open during a PSPS, and during an emergency they could become trapped if they are not trained or capable of opening them manually. Even firefighters who are responding to fires will not have adequate water that relies on electric pumps to fill tanks and pressurize hydrants. Farmers and ranchers may not have water for crops and livestock.

Imagine a wedding couple who has planned their nuptials a year in advance, only to find their ceremony and reception is in the dark without music and food. Explaining to their friends and family there is no emergency, it is only a precaution.

Buying individual generators to provide power during a PSPS is not a viable solution. Generators can be expensive and a cost many people cannot afford. They require special wiring that, if not done right, may backfeed power into the grid where it, too, could cause a fire. In addition, they produce excessive carbon and pollutants, neither of which we need more.

We are reliant on cell phones to both alert the community during disasters and for people to get news updates and locate and meet our loved ones. Cell phones will need to be recharged. Many cell towers do not have redundant systems to continue to operate without power, potentially leaving areas of a community in a communication blackout. Even cable TV and house phones could be affected.

California, the fifth-largest economy in the world, has little tolerance for the impacts of multiday power outages caused by accidents and disasters, let alone ones that are caused by the utilities simply turning off the power on critical fire days. The rolling blackouts in the year 2000-01 caused such a crisis they eventually contributed to Gov. Gray Davis being recalled.

The Utilities

The utilities have already done a lot to try to reduce powerline-caused fires. They have hired fire meteorologists and added hundreds of weather stations to ensure they have good data on the conditions that could trigger a powerline-caused fire. They have already hardened many power poles and hardware and cleared trees and vegetation around and below conductors. They have surveyed their grid with aircraft and drones looking for maintenance issues. They have written Wildfire Mitigation Plans approved by the California Public Utilities Commission. Further, they are committed to doing more. No question, they are concerned and focused. They communicate that PSPS is a last resort in the prevention of utility-caused fires. That said, PSPS should not be a permanent solution.

The design and engineering of electrical equipment needs to be commensurate with the extreme conditions of the environment. That may include extreme wind, heat, cold, fire, flood and debris flow. Systems should be designed for the potential threat that could cause failure of that system’s equipment. We don’t evacuate buildings during high winds, because the buildings are designed to withstand the winds. Such should be the same for the electrical equipment that makes up the electrical grid: design it so it will not fail.

The utilities need to have a date certain when the need for PSPS is no longer necessary. When all the system is hardened to a point where wildland fires are no longer caused from faulty equipment, poorly maintained equipment, equipment not designed for the environment in which it is located. So, when will PSPS no longer be used and do we even have the tolerance for its use now?

Managing the Impacts

While the local governments have requested it, the utilities have not yet provided them with an accurate analysis of how many people could be affected when an area is de-energized. When pressed on conducting model runs for communities to see what areas and impacts a PSPS would cause, the utilities seem unable. Local governments currently have no idea how significant a PSPS will be in their communities. Will it be 100 people or 100,000 people who will be in the dark?

The utilities have been asked what they will do to mitigate the impacts, and in general the simple answer back from them is that it is the customers who must prepare, it is the government and businesses who must prepare. Neither local governments nor businesses are fiscally ready for this. A restaurant, a school, a bank: none of them are prepared to be closed for multiple days. In an emergency the government assumes that they will expend local, state and federal funds to respond to and recover from that emergency. The impacts of a PSPS will essentially create a multiple-day emergency, yet there are no government funds to pay for the response to that emergency. This includes creating cooling shelters, phone-charging stations, checking on people, securing darkened neighborhoods from crime, activating Emergency Operations Centers and Call Centers and checking in on our vulnerable populations. When the utilities were asked if they will pay for this response, the answer is simply avoided. They will not make that commitment.

Conclusion

About 9 percent of all fires are caused by vehicles and 9 percent by powerlines, yet we don’t close highways when there are extreme fire condition days. We would simply not consider disrupting lives this way.

If utilities are liable for the damage caused from a wildfire under inverse condemnation, would they not also be responsible for the damage and harm caused from selectively turning off the power?

While we all agree the impacts of the ever-increasing destructive fires must be reversed and even eliminated, solving the problem through PSPS may not be the answer, especially as a long-term solution. The real solution to preventing a wildfire ignition from an electrical component is to have a resilient electrical grid designed not to fail.

[1] California Public Resources Code (PR Code) Sections 4292 and 4293
[2] California Public Utilities Code (PU Code) Sections 451 and 399.2(a), https://www.cpuc.ca.gov/deenergization/
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After retiring as the Director of the Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management (OEM), Robert Lewin is now a Principal at Resolute Associates LLC providing a range of emergency management consulting. He joined OEM in January 2016 after retiring as the Fire Chief for CAL FIRE/San Luis Obispo County Fire. Lewin is a Type 1 Incident Commander and had served many years on Incident Management Teams. He has held command positions both in the field and in Emergency Operations Centers (EOC) on some of California’s most complex incidents including fires, floods, earthquakes, human and animal diseases, and on special assignments. This included leading the actions of the EOC for over four months during the 2017 Thomas Fire and resulting 2018 Montecito Debris Flow. Robert is a Cal Poly graduate in Political Science, an Allan Hancock College graduate in Fire Science and has completed the Executive Leadership Program at the Naval Post Graduate School. He is a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM). Robert has published numerous articles and presented at many conferences on Emergency Management.

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