California drought has moved up wildfire season, PG&E says

LAKE MENDOCINO: A family walks across dry, cracked earth that used to be the bottom of Lake Mendocino on April 22, 2021, in Ukiah, California. As severe drought takes hold in California, the water level at Mendocino County's Lake Mendocino has dropped to a historic low of 43% capacity. California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a drought emergency in Sonoma and Mendocino counties. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images/Tribune News Service

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California's drought is accelerating the start of the 2021 wildfire season – and intensifying the pressure on PG&E Corp. to prevent more mega-fires of the sort that drove the state's largest utility into bankruptcy.

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. executives said Wednesday they've begun gearing up for wildfire season weeks earlier than usual, including putting helicopters in the air to practice for PG&E's "public safety power shutoffs."

Scott Strenfel, the utility's director of meteorology and fire science, said in an interview that the drought is drying out California's vegetation more quickly than normal. Gov. Gavin Newsom has officially declared that 41 of the state's 58 counties are in drought, including the greater Sacramento region and the Central Valley.

"The fuel moisture levels ... are about a month or two months ahead of schedule," Strenfel said. "They're at a state where they're typically this dry in mid-July, and we're seeing them in June. We're a month ahead of schedule, if not two months, in terms of fire danger."

The drought, coupled with the effects of climate change, leaves the state highly vulnerable to another bad wildfire season. Last year was the worst in modern California history in terms of acres burned: more than 4 million. Newsom has approved hundreds of millions of dollars in new funding designed to prevent and fight fires this year.

Fire risk "continues to magnify and grow exponentially over the last couple of years," said Sumeet Singh, the utility's senior vice president and chief risk officer.

This week alone, a fast-moving wildfire in Yuba County forced some residents of Beale Air Force Base to evacuate to the base's gym. More than 17,000 acres have burned so far across the state in the young fire season, according to Cal Fire.

After causing a string of massive fires that forced it to file for bankruptcy in 2019, PG&E is under severe scrutiny to reduce fire risks this summer. It just paid $43 million to local governments to cover costs of the 2019 Kincade Fire in Sonoma County and last year's fatal Zogg Fire in Shasta County and is probably facing another $600 million in damage payments to homeowners and others. Meanwhile, the utility is facing prosecution in Sonoma and a criminal investigation in Shasta.

Separately, the Public Utilities Commission in April placed the company in the first tier of its "enhanced oversight and enforcement" protocol after determining that PG&E did a poor job last year of clearing tree limbs and other vegetation away from its riskiest power lines.

Under a complicated agreement PG&E made with regulators – as a condition for getting state approval for its bankruptcy plan – PG&E could be taken over by the state if it reaches the sixth tier of the enhanced oversight program.

Singh said PG&E agrees with the PUC's complaints about its vegetation-management efforts and is improving its methods. "There were lessons learned," he said.

All told, the utility is spending about $4.9 billion this year on wildfire safety. That includes expenditures on "sectionalizing" equipment and other systems designed to narrow the footprint of PG&E's public safety power shutoffs – the planned blackouts imposed on parts of its territory when risks get exceedingly high.

"We were very successful in 2020 with reduction in size and scope," said Mark Quinlan, the vice president for public safety power shutoffs. PG&E ran six shutoffs last year and one in January 2021.

Ironically, the drought might reduce the frequency of deliberate blackouts this year, Strenfel said.

In the last drought, the utility noticed that high-pressure ridges over the Pacific led to fewer Diablo wind storms in the fall – the fierce storms that can fan the flames from wildfires.

A series of Diablo storms in October 2019 prompted PG&E to impose a string of widespread blackouts across much of Northern California, infuriating local officials and Newsom. The blackouts failed to prevent the start of the Kincade Fire, which led to huge evacuations in Sonoma County.

If the pattern holds, it's possible PG&E will have to execute fewer shutoffs this fall, he said. But he added: "This season could completely break that trend."

In any event, PG&E held a full-scale blackout drill in late May, complete with aircraft in the air to inspect power lines as if they'd been damaged by wind. Normally those drills don't begin until July, Quinlan said.

"Fire season has moved up," Singh said.

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