On a bald, fire-scarred spot in the Mayacamas Mountains east of Geyserville, two Pacific Gas and Electric workers on Tuesday installed the latest link in the utility’s multibillion-dollar effort to build a defense against wildfires.
Working from a pair of bucket trucks, the technicians mounted the 14th weather station in Sonoma County 25 feet high on the steel lattice of a high-voltage transmission line.
On the ground, PG&E meteorologist Ashley Helmetag peered at a laptop computer to check the function of the solar-powered device. It measures wind, temperature and humidity and transmits the data every 10 minutes to PG&E’s wildfire-safety operations center in San Francisco.
The embattled utility, which sought bankruptcy protection in January with an estimated $30 billion in liabilities for the deadly California wildfires of 2017 and 2018, plans to have at least 600 weather stations operating in high-risk fire areas of its 70,000-square-mile territory, including Napa County, by the year’s end.
PG&E serves 5.4 million customers from Bakersfield to the Oregon border.
Those stations will be complemented by 100 high-definition cameras capable of zooming in on infernos and pinpointing their locations day and night.
Three of PG&E’s cameras are part of the ALERTWildfire North Bay network of 13 cameras serving parts of Sonoma County from high points like Sonoma Mountain, Geyser Peak and Pepperwood Preserve.
“PG&E is really pulling out all the stops to mitigate wildfire risks,” said Helmetag, who is in charge of locating most of the 1,300 weather stations the utility plans to add by 2022. “We are targeting the most vulnerable areas.”
The weather data will bolster PG&E’s ability to forecast high-risk fire conditions “with further granularity so that we can take swift action to protect public safety,” Sumeet Singh, vice president of PG&E’s community wildfire safety program, said in a statement.
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In particular, the real-time weather reports, shared with the public and firefighting agencies, will help the state’s largest utility determine when to preemptively shut off electricity in power lines at risk of causing fires in hot, dry, windy conditions.
State Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, who chaired the Legislature’s wildfire committees the past two years, expressed doubt about the utility’s commitment to safety.
“There is good reason to be skeptical of anything PG&E proposes given its track record of obfuscation and mismanagement that has shattered lives,” Dodd said in an email.
“But we absolutely must conduct wildfire forecasting, if we want to avoid the kind of devastation we’ve seen across California. Whether PG&E can be successful in that effort remains to be seen,” he said.
Initially, PG&E estimated the cost of all the programs in its wildfire safety plan will be up to $2.3 billion. Spokeswoman Deanna Contreras said the utility was continuing to assess and determine the cost of the program’s pieces. In addition to weather stations and cameras, the utility also is clearing vegetation along power lines and upgrading its electrical equipment, among other things, as part of its safety plan.
There are now about 430 weather stations, including 231 installed this year, along with 34 cameras, 25 of them installed this year.
San Diego Gas & Electric, widely regarded as the state leader in wildfire safety, has 177 weather stations and 15 cameras in a 4,100-square-mile service area that includes 3.6 million customers in San Diego and southern Orange counties.
The devastating Witch fire in 2007 put the San Diego utility on a path of fire safety improvements much earlier than PG&E, which learned harsh lessons from fires the past two years.