California Is on Fire. Again.
Roopinder Tara posted on November 12, 2019 |
Infrastructure fails: California utility turns off power to prevent wildfire.

Fires erupt near power lines in Sycamore Canyon in Montecito, Calif. December 2017. (Picture courtesy of Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP)

For the third straight year, California is on fire. Large fires are consuming thousands of square miles, frighteningly near the state’s major metropolitan areas: the San Francisco bay area in the north and Los Angeles/San Diego metropolitan areas in the south. Much of the blame for supplying the sparks igniting the fires in the north came to rest on California’s largest utility, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E). 

A neglected transformer that explodes will release a shower of sparks over dry vegetation. Vehicles and winds can knock down weakened power lines. One resident told of an electrocuted squirrel. With its fur on fire, it fell from a pole to set off a blaze. Uncurtailed vegetation around transmission lines, dry from a rainless summer, will ignite the hills.

To escape the billions of dollars from claims of fire victims, PG&E filed for bankruptcy. Rather than spark any more fires, the public power utility decided it was better to just shut off. By the logic of the power company, it was better to turn off power in anticipation of fires rather than cause any more of them. Using undisclosed data collection methods, PG&E decided which areas were at risk and denied them power.

The golden hills of Chatsworth, Calif., featureranch grasslands and telephone poles. Power lines have sparked many a fire from the dry heat of summer, turning grass into fuel.

The before picture. California's golden hills, such as these in Chatsworth, near Los Angeles. Dry grasslands are crisscrossed with power lines. Many fires are a result of downed power lines that come in contact with dry vegetation.

A Little Insulation Wouldn’t Kill You                 

An uninsulated power line in California’s special conditions is a fire waiting to happen. Overhead power lines typically are bare metal, depending entirely on air to provide insulation. Dry air, cheap and plentiful, is a great insulator and works fine—as long as the transmission lines stay over head and separated. Power lines are installed far enough apart that even if they sway 180 degrees out of phase, they don’t get close enough to arc.

By accident, bare metal power lines find themselves on the ground, on dried out grasses, or too close to each other.

In every electrical product that comes in contact with humans, we guard against the dangers of electric current by using insulation made of a solid dielectric material, but the bare metal braided cable electricity that supply electricity to us from the source are given a pass. The arguments for not insulating power transmission lines are based on cost. The cost of insulating thousands of miles of cable when planning is daunting. The cost of not doing so—i.e., firefighting, evacuations, rebuilding, liability—is ignored.

Adding insulation to the transmission lines can make them 40 percent heavier. The towers from which they are strung would have to be stronger and closer together. Durability of insulation is also a concern. Kynar insulation can last 30 years exposed to the elements, according to an engineer on our Eng-Tips forum.

Technology Fixes

Optical and thermal sensors along the route of power lines can detect damage and arcing. One engineer suggested using a sloth-like device that moves along the length of the cables to provide an optical feed.

Bombardier's SuperScooper skims a lake's surface at a hundred miles per hour, filling its tanks to deposit the water over a fire. (Image from a Bombardier video.)
Bombardier's SuperScooper skims a lake's surface at a hundred miles per hour, filling its tanks to deposit the water over a fire. (Image from a Bombardier video.)

An ingenious firefighting aircraft by Bombardier can skim water off lakes and drop it onto fires. The CL-415, or Super Scooper, will fill its 2,000-gallon tanks with water as it skims the surface of a lake at a hundred miles per hour. The plane has been used in several countries. In 2015, the U.S. Forest Service purchased its first Super Scooper and flew it around the country where it could be tested. It is not known if it was used in the recent California wildfires.

The Supertanker, a converted Boeing 747, claims the largest capacity of firefighting chemicals or water with 19,000 gallons. (Image courtesy of YouTube.)
The Supertanker, a converted Boeing 747, claims the largest capacity of firefighting chemicals or water, up to 19,000 gallons. (Image courtesy of YouTube.)

The largest water capacity in any firefighting plane is the 19,000-gallon carrying SuperTanker, a converted Boeing 747 that belongs in a class of aircraft known as very large air tanker (VLAT). It is owned by Global Super Tanker Service, a private company based in Colorado Springs, Colo. The company claims it can get to fire in the 2.5 hours, North America in 4.5 hours and anywhere in the world in 20 hours. The Super Tanker was used in the 2017 California fires and has been reserved by California for the rest of the 2019 fire season.

The Ultimate Solution: Burial

Despite the aerial solution to fire suppression, the ultimate solution is much closer to the ground: bury your power lines.

Howls of protest from those not wanting to pay for it notwithstanding, the fact of the matter is that a buried power line has never caused a fire. An article in the San Francisco Chronicle reported that undergrounding PG&E’s transmission lines would cost up to $5 million a mile for a total of $100 billion—quite a lot of money for a cash-strapped public utility, even though that cost would eventually be passed on to its customers. In North Carolina, a 25-year process of undergrounding the cables was estimated to have raised electricity bills by 125 percent.

To the south of PG&E service area, in Southern California, which has more wildfires, San Diego Gas & Electric reported 60 percent of its power lines, including transmission lines through rural areas, had been buried by the end of 2018.

In addition to the expense, there are environmental effects from undergrounding. You have to dig ditches to bury the cables, and there is a thermal effect from the power heating up the soil.

Now It’s Personal

On Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019, anticipating freakishly high winds—hurricane winds without the hurricane—along with the grassy hills parched from a long dry summer, PG&E decided a fire storm was in the making.

Mister, do you have an outlet? Electricity is a rarity in Marin County, Calif., which lost 99 percent of its power for two days. The Margaret Todd Senior Center, in Novato, turns on its generator and let’s charge our devices.
Mister, do you have an outlet? Electricity  so dear during a recent power shutoff in Marin County, Calif., which lost 99 percent of its power for two days. The Margaret Todd Senior Center, in Novato, turns on its generator and let s us charge our devices.

With a flip of a switch, we find ourselves plunged into darkness. Ninety-nice percent of Marin County, where the author and his family have lived for 23 years, was affected. Also affected were large parts of neighboring Sonoma, Contra Costa and Solano counties. Approximately 2 million people had no power. The city of San Francisco was mostly spared. In Novato, Marin County, senior citizens fell down darkened stairwells. Schools shut down. Hospitals turned on generators for life support systems.

Not wanting the third straight year of catastrophic wildfires, the state’s biggest power utility decided it was better to turn off power than take the risk of its power lines sparking more conflagration. Marin, one of the wealthiest communities in the U.S. with a per capita income higher than San Francisco, found itself completely powerless. Half of the cell phone towers failed. Some had back up batteries that lasted for a few hours, some had generators that ran out of gas and the rest were overloaded.

We sought out places of refuge with electricity and coffee. PG&E, while it taketh away, gaveth a handful of “resource centers” where we could charge our phones and top off our batteries. Water and snacks were provided, too, but we were pretty well fed and our water was still running at home.

We haggled over electrical outlets provided at the resource centers. All were filled. The sign said, “Two outlets, and two hours each.” The mood was desperate.

“I’m at 60 percent," said one resident, looking at her iPhone.

“I’ve been here for two hours, and I’m still at 50 percent.”

The generators’ current at a senior center was split up a thousand ways, leaving but a trickle for each of our devices. The needle had not moved at all for one who had been delivered two batteries the size of lunchboxes with Amazon Prime.

She was the lucky one. Every store had sold out of generators, D-cell batteries, propane tanks, flashlights… all the supplies we thought we would need only for the Big One, i.e., the next big earthquake. A woman hawked batteries, flashlights and blankets from her trunk in the Safeway parking lot.

Our cars, all our Priuses and Teslas, were left behind at our million-dollar houses. There was no place to charge them.

“I had to go all the way to Petaluma for my Peets,” lamented a Novato resident desperate for his morning coffee, who had to forage and ended up 10 miles to the north.

Paradise Lost

In time, perspective is regained. To the north and west of Marin, the situation was far more dire. Almost exactly a year ago, the entire town of Paradise was burnt off the map by the raging Camp Fire. We name our fires, just like our earthquakes. This one was named after Camp Creek Road where the fire started. Eight-five people died. The fire was probably caused by PG&E equipment.

To live in the beauty of California, with 300 day of sunshine a year, we tend to ignore that we have carved out an existence in what is effectively desert, an environment that naturally would not support us all. Rainfall is in short supply most of the year. Surface water is most dear, with many of our river and creek beds dry all summer. A precious amount stays frozen on top of the Sierra mountains, melting into reservoirs. It rains only in the months with “R” in them, but not all of them, and most years, not a lot. Dry conditions are the norm. San Francisco’s famous fog is all the moisture we get from the skies all summer. The hills briefly turn green in our winter, long enough to grow the grasses and live oaks. But all that growth turns into fuel, the fallen trees become tinder. Unlike most of the U.S., where year-round moisture suppress fire and aids in the decomposition of vegetation, our vegetation doesn’t rot or decay. It dries and would sit there forever except for two things: livestock and fire. Herds of cows or goats would consume the grasses, but we don’t have enough of them. The result is a highly combustible ground cover. Entire countrysides of dry grass become fuel awaiting a spark that can come from anywhere—a downed power line, sparks from a transformer, cigarette butt thrown from a car, a car parked with its hot exhaust system touching dead grass and, though rare, summer lightning.

So,we go back, even after we flee our burning homes. We rebuild them. The fire insurance may give you full value for your home if you rebuild on the same spot. Oh, well. Enjoy the sunshine. And, anyway, what are the odds of it happening again? It’s like lightning striking twice in the same spot, right?

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