The extraordinary wind event that swept across Pacific Gas & Electric Co.’s (PG&E’s) service area on Oct. 8 and 9, 2017, produced strong gusts across much of the energy company’s northern service area. Gusts in excess of 75 mph were observed in some areas, and during the event, red-flag warnings for strong winds and dry conditions were in effect for most of Northern California.
The wind event — combined with California’s worst multi-year drought in recorded history, millions of dead trees and renewed vegetation growth from last winter storms — contributed to trees, branches and other debris impacting PG&E’s electric lines.
Fanned by the intense winds, numerous wildfires broke out and quickly spread, burning much of the infrastructure in their path. In addition to many homes and businesses, the fires damaged or destroyed 2800 power poles and 300 miles of transmission and distribution lines.
Overall, at the height of outage activity, as a result of the fires, approximately 359,000 customers lost power throughout Lake, Mendocino, Napa and Sonoma counties. PG&E linemen worked together to quickly and safely restore power to those residences that could safely receive electricity.
PG&E’s Emergency Response
On a typical day, 40 to 50 workers operate and maintain PG&E’s system in the Napa Valley. Over the course of those two days in October, however, 1200 workers traveled to the Napa area to support the restoration effort, demanding military-type mobilization. Just arranging for the logistics — from securing the equipment and materials to offering meals and lodging — was extensive and complex.
Through the Incident Command Structure, PG&E kept the linemen safe and productive in the field. PG&E secured a 60-acre parcel of land southwest of Napa and a 100-acre parcel in Rohnert Park, where it quickly built military-sized base camps. In total, the company activated four base camps and deployed more than 4300 workers, including PG&E employees and mutual-aid crews to support the response. PG&E’s Sonoma base camp alone housed 2150 people at the height of the response and restoration effort. It was the largest base camp ever assembled by PG&E.
Crews worked around the clock from the camps to return power and gas service — and a sense of normalcy — to the surrounding communities.
To support the logistics of the large-scale restoration effort, PG&E called upon its planning and intelligence branch for reporting and assessment; its operations group to organize and execute the work in the field; its customer outreach branch; public information officers; and safety officers to oversee safe field conditions and ensure the linemen were supplied with the necessary equipment.
The wildfires left numerous dead and dying trees standing along power lines and across the landscape, so to help clear the way for the linemen, Cal Fire allowed tree crews to work ahead of the line crews. After they removed vegetation and debris, the linemen restrung wire and set new poles. This teamwork and cooperation sped restoration to the customers who could receive power. Linemen made significant progress on restoration in the first week, but the fires continued to spread, extending the restoration time.
Throughout the restoration effort, the linemen had to work in different types of topography. For example, Santa Rosa features subdivisions in urban areas, while Napa Valley is dotted with vineyards and larger parcels of land with bigger homes.
Because of the rough terrain and mountainous area in the footprint of the Atlas fire, the linemen needed specialized equipment to get their work done. As such, they used bulldozers on tracks and pole-setting equipment, and they worked with helicopter pilots to reset poles and restring wires in particularly inaccessible areas. In the rural areas surrounding Napa Valley, the linemen used Line Cats and “Spiders,” which are machines on tracks designed to set poles on hills.
To improve their efficiency, the line crews not only relied on specialized equipment, but they also partnered with the gas crews who brought their front-end loaders and dump trucks to clean up debris. With this approach, the linemen were able to focus on restoring power and building infrastructure rather than on the cleanup process.
While the linemen faced challenges during the restoration, they completed their work with no injuries, other than breathing irritations from the smoke. Given the fact that the linemen worked thousands of hours and worked in highly inaccessible locations, PG&E attributes its safety record to the organized approach to the restoration effort.
To keep the crews safe in the field, PG&E designated safety officers and set up a fully staffed safety trailer with an on-site nurse. The safety officers conducted daily briefings, provided updates on the fire efforts and shared information on which areas were safe or unsafe to work in.
The linemen began each day with an all-hands safety briefing, and they were required to stretch before they went out in the field each day. Often, the crews worked 16-hour days, so they were urged to get rest, stop for meals and zone in on safety.
Throughout the entire restoration effort, the crews focused on three key objectives: emphasizing clarity, being aware of complacency and avoiding overlap. For example, when the linemen go on such a large restoration effort, they must understand what they are supposed to do before they even step foot out in the field. Secondly, they had to watch out for complacency since they were working long days. Because the conditions were ever-changing and dynamic, they had to make sure they were aware of their surroundings. If they were tired, they were asked to come in from the field, get help or take a rest to avoid injuries. Finally, they were encouraged to avoid overlap, which can pose a real danger during a large-scale restoration effort. With multiple crews working on a line, everyone had to be aware of what the other crews were doing. For example, PG&E wanted to avoid the possibility that one crew leader could give the command to restore the line without notifying other linemen working on the same line. As such, a supervisor walked the line to identify and mitigate any hazards before they posed a danger to the line crews.
In addition, the linemen were advised to work at a safe but determined pace. While it’s human nature to accelerate work when the finish line is in sight, PG&E encouraged its field workforce to be clear and deliberate in their pace and work safely. If they tried to rush through their work they could have missed something important and made a mistake or caused an injury. Because PG&E didn’t want anyone to get hurt, it carried this consistent message to the field each and every day: “Work at a safe and determined pace.”
Working with Partners
Restoring power following the large-scale fires required not only help from PG&E’s own linemen, but also its mutual-aid partners. Twenty-four mutual-aid crews — from Southern California Edison, San Diego Gas & Electric, Roseville Electric and Sacramento Municipal Utility District, among other energy companies — jumped into action after PG&E requested assistance. The utility also called upon line contractors to provide both equipment and crews.
One lineman traveled from Alaska to California to help with the restoration effort. The 72-year-old lineman said he had been part of a lot of restorations, but he had never seen anything as large and well organized as the response to the October wildfires.
By working alongside its mutual-aid partners, PG&E restored power to all of the customers who lost electric service and were capable of having service restored by Oct. 20. And the energy company has initiated several customer assistance programs to help impacted customers. PG&E has a comprehensive disaster billing and credit policy in place that temporarily creates a billing hold, stopping bills during and after a disaster. Under this policy, PG&E has suspended bills for those who have lost their homes or businesses in the fires.
The exception, however, is that 5600 houses were destroyed and need to be completely rebuilt. Today, PG&E has programs in place to assist these homeowners with reconnections as they plan to rebuild. It is offering deposit relief for customers who lost their homes by returning deposits on accounts, if applicable, and will not charge a new deposit for up to one year. PG&E is also protecting customers who lost property from collections action for one year.
Also, after the fires, PG&E had to determine how to handle the damaged trees and vegetation. In turn, it launched a wildfire wood management program. Any customers with danger trees on their property could opt into the program to get them cut down and hauled away at no cost. PG&E removed about 30,000 hazard trees as a part of this program, helping to ensure public safety and protect its electric and gas infrastructure.
PG&E has been part of the communities impacted by the October 2017 wildfires for more than 100 years. They are friends, neighbors and colleagues, and PG&E is devastated by what they are going through. Customers and the general public will continue to see an enhanced PG&E presence in these areas for some time as the company works to help these communities restore and rebuild what’s been lost, for as long as it takes. ♦
Roy Surges is the electric superintendent for the North Bay division of Pacific Gas & Electric. He has worked 35 years for PG&E, and he served as the deputy incident commander for the Napa, California, base camp as well as the incident commander during the October 2017 wildfires.