By Kathe Malouf
Special to the Sun
Kern River Valley residents are all too familiar with wildland fires and how quickly they can start and spread during high winds and hot temperatures.
Southern California Edison hosted a community meeting last week in the Kern River Valley to discuss “the new normal” – a term that refers to the extreme weather events that California has experienced recently which have resulted in unprecedented wildfires.
“California no longer has a fire season, it is year-round, so we all need to be prepared,” said Kristi Gardner, SCE Senior Advisor, in welcoming the packed room of residents.
The purpose of the meeting was to inform residents about the steps SCE is taking to strengthen their system against fire and other natural disasters through operational practices, system improvements and weather monitoring. Representatives also presented an overview of the Public Safety Power Shutoff program.
Catastrophic fires are occurring more frequently throughout California due to erratic winds, hot temperatures and dry conditions. Eight of the states 20 most destructive wildfires have occurred since 2015.
In response, SCE is working to strengthen their system to protect against wildfire in a number of ways, said Tom Brady, SCE Senior Advisor.
During periods of high winds, SCE crews patrol the area looking for objects that may cause a power disruption. Most electric circuit interruptions are caused by a bird, tree limb or Mylar balloon that makes contact with power lines. Under normal conditions, the grid automatically tests the circuit and, if the fault condition no longer exists, the circuit is quickly re-energized.
But during high wind, or Red Flag conditions, affected circuits are not automatically re-energized and SCE crews must physically inspect the lines before they can be re-energized.
Representatives briefed attendees on what they are doing system-wide to strengthen their poles and lines, including replacing wooden poles with fire-resistant poles, cross arms and insulators.
Ken Hurley, SCE District Manager said that in the Kern Valley and Glennville area, steel poles are replacing some of the older wooden poles.
Since 2014, SCE has replaced 39,000 poles in high fire risk areas throughout their service system, an area that encompasses 50,000 square miles with more than 1.4 million power poles.
Because trees can cause safety hazards and power outages, SCE patrols for vegetation hazards to identify potential problems.
“We inspect 900,000 trees annually in our 50,000 square mile service area and about 700,000 trees get trimmed,” Brady said. “We have to keep vegetation off our lines. In 2017 we removed 39,000 dead and dying trees near electrical facilities.” To put that in prospective, Brady said that prior to 2015, less than 5,000 trees were removed per year.
Because of the evolving climate and need to stay ahead of severe fire conditions, SCE has established a 24/7 center referred to as the Situational Awareness Center, to monitor wildfire risk and coordinate prevention and response efforts. Brady said the center is staffed with meteorologists who monitor and understand fire conditions. Where SCE previously relied on the National Weather Service, Brady said they want to be able to pinpoint wildfire-related weather forecasting on their individual circuits.
Brady then shifted his presentation to discuss what most of the residents came to hear about: the Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) program, a practice that SCE may use to preemptively turn off power in high fire risk areas to reduce the risk of fire during extreme weather conditions.
“This is a practice of last resort,” Brady said. “Our goal is to provide power, and we will use the public safety power shutoff program as sparingly as possible.”
During high wind events, debris and tree limbs can blow into power lines, leading to not only a service interruption, but creating the potential to generate sparks and ignite a fire.
Brady told attendees that SCE conducted an analysis of their 50,000 square mile service area, and they project having to use the PSPS between two to ten times per year across their entire service area.
In making the determination to shut off power to lines, SCE will consider various criteria, one being that the National Weather Service has issued a Red Flag warning in an area that contains SCE circuits in High Fire Risk areas. Other factors would involve input from local and state fire authorities and consideration of the impact that de-energizing circuits would have on essential services.
The extent of the power outage would depend on how long the weather pattern remains in the area. Brady said before power can be restored, crews will have to patrol power lines to ensure they are safe, a step that is necessary but adds to the outage duration.
SCE customers would be notified about 48 hours in advance of a potential PSPS event, and SCE would attempt to notify customers again 24 hours before power is turned off. That notification would be made through a combination of phone calls, text messaging, email and social media.
For that reason, Brady encouraged those in attendance to sign up for PSPS notification during last week’s meeting. Residents can also sign up by going to SCE website at: www.sce.com.
Kern County Fire Department Deputy Chief Steve Shoemaker spoke to those in attendance about the importance of advance notification of an emergency or evacuation. He encouraged residents to go to the fire department’s website and sign up for Ready Kern as a way to stay informed about evacuations or power outages due to wildfires or other disasters.