California utilities prevent fires by shutting down electricity

VIDEO: Experts say shutting down power lines to prevent wildfires is effective

In California, where firestorms are becoming more intense in the changing climate, people now face something called a public safety power shut-off.

To prevent wildfires during extreme conditions, utilities leave entire neighborhoods in the dark.

A presentation to regulators by Pacific Power, a utility operating in all three West Coast states, shows fires started by power lines are, on average, ten times larger than fires started by other causes.

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Kevin Schneider at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory calls preventive shutdowns a last resort and a tough decision for utility managers.

“Do I turn this line off and outage a bunch of people, which will cause a certain amount of angst, or do I leave it on and hope it doesn’t cause an even bigger event,” he said.

Despite significant fires, Washington state has not seen big preventive shutdowns.

Puget Sound Energy declined an interview but wrote in a statement, “We do not have a standing policy to proactively de-energize power lines in advance of fire activity; we realize that not having electricity has its own safety risks.”

“Our forests have not quite become that dry,” said Subramanian Vadari of Modern Grid Solutions.

Vadari said California is so dry, bare wires can spark a fire.

Vadari said that’s a different situation from what firefighters said started the Sumner Grade Fire, where a windstorm brought down lines and blew a transformer.

Preventive shut-offs began after Pacific Gas and Electric faced billions of dollars in lawsuits and declared bankruptcy after transmission lines started fires in California.

“That makes them extra cautious. And as a result of that, it makes other utilities extra cautious because, ‘If it can happen to them, it can happen to us as well,’” Vadari said.