By Kathe Malouf
Special to the Sun
Southern California Edison crews have been actively working on the ground, in the air and with help of technology to strengthen the utility’s grid system in an effort to prevent wildfires and ensure that the power stays on.
As part of SCE’s Wildfire Mitigation Program, the utility is spending millions of dollars to update the system throughout their 50,000-square-mile service area to reduce wildfire risk by installing fire resistant poles and equipment; tree trimming and vegetation removal and keeping a watchful eye on ever-changing weather conditions.
In the past 18 months, SCE has made numerous upgrades, including:
• Installing composite poles that are stronger and more resilient than wood
• Adding insulated wires that lower the chance of faults or short circuits that can create sparks when they come in contact with animals, birds, vegetation or other debris
• Installing fast-acting fuses, advanced lightning arrestors and other devices that react quickly to minimize fire risks.
In the Kern River Valley, considered to be a high-fire risk area, those efforts are well underway. Crews from SCE and contracted companies have been working seven days a week, 12 hours a day to ensure that by the end of this year they will have completed:
• Installation of about 160 miles of insulated wire east of Lake Isabella
• Installation of 320 fire-resistant composite poles
• Installation of seven weather stations with localized weather information for wildfire forecasting
• Installation of fire-monitoring cameras
• Aerial overhead line inspections to identify potential equipment issue
Additionally, as part of preventative action, approximately 10,000 trees have been inspected in the Kern Valley area to determine if they should be trimmed or removed in order to prevent them from coming into contact with power lines. From January to May, SCE also performed supplemental vegetation management patrols looking for additional work that needed to be done.
Helicopters are being used to help with aerial inspections.
According to SCE, they have employed contract helicopters as part of a targeted effort to mitigate the risk of wildfires. Helicopters can perform the work in the more remote areas around the Kern River Valley that are not easily accessible by vehicles. In July, helicopters were used for a number of pole replacements in the valley.
More recently, helicopters have been conducting overhead inspections of transmission lines and equipment. These inspections along transmission corridors require that the helicopters fly at a relatively low altitude and low hovering speed. The helicopters are equipped with a camera that is attached to record the lines and equipment, which is then reviewed to determine if any repairs or maintenance is needed.
Don Daigler, Director of Business Resiliency, recently spoke with the Kern Valley Sun about their wildfire mitigation efforts.
“Our goal is to minimize the likelihood of sparks. We recognize that it will take time to accomplish our long-term plan,” Daigler said, adding that SCE is well into their short-term mitigation efforts.
Daigler noted that they are keeping an eye on the weather and have implemented a number of steps to forecast potential wildfire conditions in order to respond to fire events when they occur.
“As we are making these upgrades, if we see severe weather conditions, we will take proactive steps,” Daigler said.
And when extreme and potentially dangerous weather conditions exist, one of those steps would be a Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) event. During these events, SCE would proactively turn off power in high fire risk areas to reduce the threat of wildfires. While turning power off is not something SCE takes lightly, Daigler said a PSPS event is considered to be one of the ways they can ensure the safety of the public and their employees.
“We have found that over the past five years, 50 percent to 60 percent of fires that have occurred involved something interacting with our lines,” Daigler said. “The reason for a spark is interaction with a line that is due to wind. We need to know what those winds are as well as the fuel conditions. More importantly, we need to understand fire potential.”
As such, SCE has installed weather stations across their service territory to provide real-time information about wind, temperature and humidity to help them make key decisions during potential fire conditions, including possible PSPS events.
According to Daigler, they have already installed 400 weather stations throughout their service area. Their goal is to place 850 stations by the end of next year. Seven weather stations have been installed around the Kern Valley including the Kern River, Kernville, Wofford Heights, Kelso Valley, Canebrake, Erskine Creek and Caliente-Bodfish.
The weather stations are monitored at SCE’s Situational Awareness Center, which is staffed around the clock with meteorologists and a wildfire fuels expert during fire events to monitor the weather and advise SCE of steps that need to be taken.
According to Daigler, approximately one-quarter of their 50,000-square-mile service territory is considered to be within a Tier 2 and Tier 3 high-fire risk area.
“We need to understand fuel type, fuel conditions and quantity in order to calculate the fire potential index so that we can predict how bad the situation is in a specific location,” he said noting that the information gives SCE the opportunity to make notifications as early as 48 hours in advance of shutting the system off.
When severe wind conditions occur, Daigler said they can identify what circuits are at risk. “We deploy field people to make ground inspections. All that information is funneled back to the Situational Awareness Center.”
The placement of high-resolution cameras is another tool that SCE is relying on.
According to Daigler, a total of 126 live fire-monitoring cameras have been installed throughout the service area in high-fire risk areas. These cameras provide first responders and incident command teams quick alerts to fires.
“We will have 160 cameras in place by the end of his year,” he said. “These cameras are allowing fires to be spotted quickly, which allows resources to respond quickly.”
Two such cameras have been placed in the Kern Valley; one at Shirley Peak and one near Rocky Point.
Cost of the wildfire mitigation efforts and upgrades have been estimated at $600 million, Daigler said. But the upgrades are not entirely linked to wildfires.
“This is bettering the system and making it resilient against all hazards,” Daigler said.
He noted that they will have approximately 90 percent of the Tier 2 and Tier 3 areas covered by the end of the year, which is good news for their customers.
“The more we get in place, the less likely there will be a PSPS,” Daigler said.
For tips about preparing for a power outage, go to: www.sce.com/outage-center
Residents are encouraged to sign up for PSPS alerts at: www.sce.com/mysce/login