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PG&E’s forest fire protection breeds controversy.

During this tender dry wildfire season, changes to Pacific Gas & Electric’s power lines have dramatically reduced the risk of frightening and deadly fires.

But whenever a rogue squirrel is zipped, hundreds of villagers are suddenly plunged into darkness – hours, sometimes days.

The computer screen becomes blank. The stoves don’t work. Wi-Fi is dead. Refrigerators stop cooling.

“It’s like camping,” said Barbara Melchin, a 71-year-old widow who was forced to fill buckets with water during a recent outing in the Santa Cruz Mountains because she had stopped working. “Life is controlled by the thought: ‘Will I gain strength?’ ”

These unplanned closures now differ from the familiar Public Safety Power Shit Office (PSPS), such as One Monday, which already had electricity for 24,000 consumers in 23 counties due to high weather and fire hazards. Had closed

In contrast, new shut-offs are automatic and surprising, often on quiet days.

Deadly forest fires have erupted in recent years after problems with PG&E equipment, the utility giant’s new strategy – called Enhanced Power Line Safety Settings (EPS) – has been introduced in fire-risk districts. Adjusts the sensitivity of the devices and the speed at which the safety device can turn off the energy in the power lines.

Since its implementation last July, there have been 356 unplanned power outages in the PG&E service area due to power outages, causing chaos among blackout customers. There are about 25 closures in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Los Gatos, California – October 7: Power lines along Summit Road in Los Gatos, California, on Thursday, October 7, 2021. (Nath V Meyer / Bay Area News Group)

Electricity is never restored unless workers inspect the entire line. This may take some time. Each closure lasts an average of 99 to 12 hours.

But the new strategy also averted a possible catastrophe in the historic town of Quarsgold, near Yosemite, last month, when a tree fell on a line during an unexpected lightning storm, cutting off power to 6,000 residents.

“What we’re seeing is a great learning curve,” said Steven Weissman, a former California Public Utility Commission administrative law judge who oversees PG&E, and a lecturer at UC Berkeley’s Goldman Sachs. ۔ School of Public Policy

“Where do we get that equilibrium point – where we can significantly reduce the risk of fire, but not turn off the power unnecessarily at the same time?” he said. PG&E “needs to have a chance to collect this data before anyone can make a final decision about its merits.”

As climate change contributes to extreme weather conditions, the weakness of the state’s power system is becoming increasingly apparent.

Two lawsuits have been filed by about 2,200 people, alleging that PT&E fired several flying fuses and equipment last month after a massive dexy fire in Butt County this summer. PG&E was charged with murder when a tree fell on a line and a 2020 fire broke out in Shasta County, killing four people.

PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 unnecessary massacres in the 2018 fire that nearly destroyed the town of Paradise. According to the California Public Utility Commission, the campfire, the country’s deadliest fire in a century, broke out when strong winds smashed equipment worn on an old forged steel tower.

So now PG&E is adopting a zero tolerance approach, which is when the electric current along a line stops and jumps through the air, emitting sparks.

Eighty-five percent of California’s population suffers from severe drought. “It’s very dangerous,” said Mark Quinlan, PG & E’s vice president of forest fire control and enforcement.

To prevent arching, the lines are now closed at the first sign of a power outage.

Since the adjusted settings were implemented, PG&E reported a 60% reduction in potential ignitions between July 28 and September 18, compared to the same time last year. With the winter rains, normal settings will be restored, unplanned closures will be reduced, the utility predicts.

The strategy is targeting areas of the state that are hard, difficult to reach and most at risk of major burns, such as the Santa Cruz Mountains and parts of the Diablo Range in the Eastern Gulf.

PG&E always has the ability to adjust the sensitivity of line safety devices, called reclosers. Similarly, workers are safe while repairing moving lines.

What has changed is the widespread use of this strategy. Increasing power line safety settings have been installed in 169 circuits on lines over 11,500 miles, serving 380,000 customers.

Closures can be caused by dangerously fallen trees – even small things. “It could be a squirrel, it could be a bird, it could be a metal balloon, it could be a car that hit a pole,” Coylen said.

Even small particles of dust, smoke or fog can cause problems. And because power grids are so large, an event can cause shutdowns in homes several miles away.

Residents are frustrated by the denial of the purpose of the services, even as rates go up. He says wildfires are dangerous, and blackouts are dangerous.

“They shut us all down,” said Eric Horton, a third-generation Santa Cruz Mountain resident.

“We need both security and reliable strength,” he said. “Electricity is an important infrastructure in a modern society.”

The elderly and the chronically ill rely on electricity for their medical equipment, he said. People with fixed incomes have lost hundreds of dollars worth of food. Professionals run around the city looking for Wi-Fi signals for client meetings.

Horton notes that as the power goes down, hundreds of gas-fired generators immediately ignite, introducing a new source of ignition. When a well runs on electricity, the inhabitants are without water, so they cannot control the fire. If there is a fire, and there is no landline phone, people cannot make an emergency phone call for help.

Los Gatos, California – October 7: Power lines along Summit Road in Los Gatos, California, on Thursday, October 7, 2021. (Nath V Meyer / Bay Area News Group)

Angela Yapola’s home was cut off in the early hours of Labor Day. Unable to cook breakfast, the family decided to eat out. Six-year-old Olivia ran to get her shoes – and crashed into a wall in the dark.

Bleeding from a golf ball-sized gauge in the middle of her forehead, Olivia was taken to the emergency room of Good Tactical Hospital. There, a plastic surgeon sewed three layers of stitches through the muscles and skin to close the wounds. The scar can be permanent.

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