Citing rain, Santa Rosa says wildfire season over; PG&E to change new fire prevention plan
Citing the accumulation of nearly two weeks of rain in the North Bay, the Santa Rosa Fire Department on Monday declared an end to the city’s wildfire season, which began May 17 and included blazes as large as 50 acres.
In addition, PG&E said it will hit pause on its controversial fire prevention plan that zapped power to Sonoma County customers living in fire-prone areas whenever something touched a power line. Though successful, it annoyed many customers as it also increased the frequency and duration of outages in those areas it was created to protect.
Utility officials point to the recent rains as a factor in their decision to rework the program.
Though forecasters maintain consistent rainfall will be necessary before declaring an end to California’s drought, existing conditions appear to be enough to ease concerns across this drought-stricken region about wildfires.
“If a fire starts now, the likelihood of it spreading is very minimal,“ Matt Mehle, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service Bay Area office, said Monday.
It was unclear whether the Sonoma County Fire District would follow Santa Rosa’s lead and declare an end to fire season in the unincorporated or census-designated places it covers. Fire district representatives could not be reached for comment Monday.
On Tuesday, Cal Fire Division Chief Ben Nichols said his agency has not declared an end to fire season. The agency has to take the entire state into consideration for such a declaration and Southern California hasn’t received as much rain as Northern California, he said.
Regardless, the Santa Rosa Fire Department is already looking ahead to 2022 and has begun encouraging residents to take measures to protect themselves during next year’s wildfire season. This includes creating defensible spaces and cutting back vegetation.
“Those measures prevented significant property damage during several of our fires this past season,“ Santa Rosa Fire Chief Scott Westrope said Monday in a statement.
Precipitation has been prevalent in the North Bay since light rain began to fall on Oct. 17 ahead of an atmospheric river that pounded the area just days later.
During that Oct. 24 deluge, which brought torrential rains and winds down on the North Bay, the city of Santa Rosa recorded 7.83 inches of rain, shattering its all-time record for the most rainfall in a single day.
PG&E officials say the rains will also bring ease to their customers who have balked at the power outages caused by the utility’s Enhanced Powerline Safety Settings plan.
“Because of the rain we should see a decline in these types of power outages,” PG&E spokeswoman Deanna Contreras said Monday.
Launched in late July, the program was created to minimize the threat of fires across the utility’s coverage area, put particularly in places at the highest risk for wildfires.
The sensitivity levels of power lines in these fire-prone areas was raised, which meant greater chances of electricity shuts-off whenever lines came into contact with a tree branch or were touched by a small animal.
It covers more than 11,500 miles of lines across the utility’s entire service area and, in Sonoma County, includes portions of Sebastopol, Occidental, Monte Rio, Fulton, Fort Ross and Geyserville.
During an Oct. 20 webinar for residents in Sonoma and Marin counties, PG&E officials said that since it began the plan was responsible for 23 outages: 15 in Geyserville, four in Molino, and two each in Fulton and Monte Rio. On average, they affected as few as 300 customers and as many as 2,091.
Because of the continued rains, the utility said, power line sensitivity levels have been put back to normal now that weather conditions have dampened the environment and reduced the threat of fires.
PG&E is still using its power line safety settings plan as necessary and another webinar is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Tuesday. Information is available on the utility’s website.
PG&E officials said they’re still adjusting the program and future changes include installing animal protection on equipment and only adjusting sensitivity levels on days of high fire danger, like when the National Weather Service issues a red flag warning.
“Absolutely we can do that and that’s our intent,” Mark Quinlan, PG&E vice president of wildfire mitigation operations and execution, said.
You can reach Staff Writer Colin Atagi at email@example.com. On Twitter @colin_atagi