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PG&E installing weather stations, cameras to defend against wildfires

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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 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.

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.

The PG&E weather station mounted Tuesday was placed at an elevation of about 3,200 feet on a knob near Cobb Mountain that has been scorched repeatedly, but not in the 2017 wildfires. It is about 1,000 feet higher than another station that records significantly different conditions, Helmetag said.

The expanding network of weather stations “gives us real-time observations in places we’ve never had access to,” she said.

They are also part of a nationwide network called MesoWest, a cooperative that reports data from more than 20,000 weather stations. There are more than 100 California stations in the network, available online at mesowest.utah.edu.

PG&E’s fire-prevention cameras are part of another network, ALERTWildfire, a group of three universities — University of Nevada, Reno, UC San Diego and the University of Oregon — that now has about 210 cameras in California and four other western states.

During the past three fire seasons from 2016 to 2018, the network’s cameras have provided “critical information” for more than 600 blazes, including the Thomas fire that charred 440 square miles in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties in December 2017.

The network’s North Bay camera views can be seen online at alertwildfire.org/northbay.

Christopher Godley, Sonoma County’s emergency management director, said the North Bay cameras are invaluable for quickly pinpointing fires and saving firefighters from driving around for 20 minutes to find a fire reported by a caller.

Dispatchers at both the Sonoma County and Cal Fire emergency centers can aim the cameras and zoom in for a close look, he said. The cameras also can monitor a fire’s movement, aiding emergency management efforts to fight the flames as well as plot evacuations.

Officials still depend on the public for initial fire reports, Godley said, because the cameras do not scan the landscape to detect fire, although artificial intelligence software may eventually make that possible.

“Crowdsourcing is still the way to go,” he said.

Sonoma Water spent about $475,000 to install the North Bay’s first eight fire cameras intended to protect Lake Sonoma, the largest reservoir for the agency that delivers water to 600,000 residents in Sonoma and Marin counties.

Godley said he would like to have 12 more cameras serving the region, which still has “blind spots” in its coverage.

The county has applied for a $1.2 million grant for additional cameras, which cost a minimum of $10,000 to install, and also hopes PG&E may pay for more, he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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