Wildfires in the West: History and Lessons from PG&E’s Responses

Power lines and wildfire

Western wildfire burns under high voltage electrical transmission line

Wildfires in the West have become increasingly destructive and expensive in recent years. In 2019, Business Insider published an article blaming Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) for 1,500 fires in the last six years. The list includes Butte County’s Camp Fire, the state’s deadliest wildfire on record. The fire burned 153,336 acres and claimed 85 lives.

Many California residents and politicians say the destruction comes from PG&E’s willingness to prioritize profits over safety. Perhaps that’s true, but the increased number of wildfires also has a connection to climate change. Rising temperatures can disrupt weather patterns people have relied on for generations. Now, parts of California see extremely wet rainy seasons and extremely dry arid seasons that don’t follow previous patterns. Those dry seasons provide ample kindling to start wildfires.

This trend happens worldwide in areas as diverse as Southeast Australia and Southern Amazonia. Even more troubling, researchers expect the number of wildfires to grow over the next several decades. That puts everyone in a perilous position. Utility companies need to adjust their wildfire mitigation plans to address this reality. Organizations should also develop business continuity plans for wildfires that could disrupt their operations.

PG&E’s Wildfire Response

PG&E has been connected to dozens of wildfires over the last several years. In some cases, courts have held the utility responsible:

  • In 2022, former executives at PG&E paid a $117 million settlement for its role in the 2017 North Bay fire and the 2018 Camp fire.
  • In 2022, PG&E agreed to pay $55 million in penalties to avoid criminal prosecution for starting the 2021 Dixie and 2019 Kincade fires.
  • In 2024, PG&E agreed to pay an additional $45 million for its role in the 2021 Dixie fire.

In these and other cases, PG&E has been found liable for mismanaging its infrastructure or the vegetation around its infrastructure.

Mitigating Wildfire Risks

PG&E has developed a four-pronged plan for reducing wildfire ignition risks. According to an executive summary from the company, the plan includes:

  • Adopting Comprehensive Monitoring and Data Collection programs that improve infrastructure oversight and safety via strategically placed cameras and other data-gathering initiatives.
  • Using technologies like Downed Conductor Detection and Enhanced Powerline Safety Settings (EPSS) that raise concerns before wildfires can start.
  • Reducing risk by moving 10,000 miles of transmission lines underground.
  • Interacting with the public to increase awareness of wildfire risks.

PG&E claims that these plans have worked extremely well. Its report shows a 68% decrease in ignitions on primary distribution conductors and a 56% decrease in the length of outages from 2021 to 2022.

So far, it looks like PG&E’s response efforts have worked well. Still, it’s too early to know how these changes will influence wildfires in the coming years. The company only started working on major changes a few years ago.

As of mid-2024, California has experienced nearly 1,800 wildfires (with no fatalities). It’s unclear whether PG&E played a role in these fires, but it hasn’t been held responsible for them. This could mean that the initiatives have had the intended improvements. It’s also clear that wildfires will continue to plague parts of California regardless of PG&E’s improvements.

Lessons Learned from PG&E Wildfire Responses

While it’s difficult to know how PG&E’s plans will play out as the climate continues to change, some of its initiatives stand out as particularly interesting approaches to decreasing wildfire hazards.

The company has even discussed some of its most effective strategies, including:

  • Moving more lines underground in high-risk areas so they cannot interact with dry vegetation.
  • System hardening that involves upgrading existing assets and adding break-away connectors that de-energize as needed during high-risk times.
  • Vegetation management that removes dry vegetation that could contribute to wildfires.
  • Public safety power shutoffs (PSPS) that can turn off assets when data shows that they may overheat, including during high wind events, when utilities may proactively de-energize both distribution and high-voltage transmission lines as needed to reduce wildfire risk.

It’s important to note that these strategies largely involve proactive measures designed to prevent wildfires long before they have a chance to start. Moving lines underground, for example, demonstrates that PG&E has undergone a significant change in culture that recognizes the importance of protecting the present while preparing for the future.

How Wildfires Impact Businesses

Wildfires and other extreme weather events can have tremendous impacts on businesses. In the worst cases, businesses need to evacuate facilities before wildfires consume the buildings. Even when fires don’t threaten lives or structures, they can disrupt access to power, which disrupts business operations.

Financial Costs of Power Outages

The financial damage of a power outage varies depending on your industry. Generally speaking, though, small businesses can expect to lose about $427 per minute of downtime, while medium-to-large businesses can lose $9,000.

Unfortunately, one study cited by Ready.gov shows that business interruptions cost California more money than any other state.

Operational Impact of Power Outages

Of course, the negative effects of electrical outages go beyond losing money in the short term. Outages can also delay operations, leading to:

  • Poorer brand reputation
  • Unhappy clients who might take their business elsewhere
  • Falling behind on critical projects

Your business might have legitimate, unavoidable reasons for missing its goals. Some stakeholders and clients won’t care about the reason, though. They only care about getting the products and services they requested by a deadline.

Preparing Your Business for Wildfire Season

Raging wildfires in the West could force you to abandon your business facilities. In those cases, you must prioritize safety over business continuity.

Often, though, you can prepare for wildfire-related power outages, allowing your business to stay on track regardless of your utility company’s response.

Common ways to prepare for outages include:

The specific types of backup systems you choose will depend on several factors, including your location and how much power your facility consumes during normal operations. If you need help selecting a backup power source, calculating your power needs, or accessing a custom solution, reach out to Global Power Supply. Our experts can guide you through every step of utility wildfire mitigation.