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To Prevent Calif. Wildfires, Utility Preemptively Shuts Down Power

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The lights are out again in parts of California. Dangerous fire weather - hot, dry and windy - has descended on most of the state. And that's prompted Pacific Gas and Electric, the state's largest utility, to shut off power to hundreds of thousands of customers because their power lines have been known to spark wildfires. Dan Brekke with member station KQED in San Francisco is on the line with us now. Dan, thanks for being here. Can you just tell us how many people have been affected by these outages at this point?

DAN BREKKE, BYLINE: Well, PG&E is saying about 345,000 homes and businesses in 34 counties - so about two-thirds of the state - were involved in this. And given the average household size in California, we figure that's about 1 million people who were without power.

MARTIN: So, as I mentioned, the purpose of these blackouts is to prevent wildfires. Is that working?

BREKKE: Well, it seems to be. These high winds really do pose a hazard. Falling trees can bring down lines. Or branches can blow into live wires. Or power poles can snap. And as we've seen many times, an incident like that can provide the spark for a catastrophic fire. And after these shut offs, PG&E generally reports dozens or sometimes hundreds of cases of line damage that might have started fires. And in fact, they say they've seen that already from this latest shutdown.

MARTIN: I mean, but it's clearly so disruptive to people's lives to have their power out. Does the utility have any other options?

BREKKE: It does have other options. You know, they're supposed to use these only as a last resort. But unfortunately, the alternatives available are very expensive and very time consuming. So one potential solution you hear lots of people ask about is simply undergrounding electrical lines, just burying them. PG&E itself has estimated it costs about $3 million a mile to underground distribution lines. So even if you tried to bury just the 25,000 miles of lines in the areas with the highest fire danger in California where PG&E operates, we'd be talking about $75 billion.

MARTIN: Wow. So it's either shut people's power off or spend, you know, billions of dollars on a project that would take decades. Is there anything besides that?

BREKKE: Well, the main job facing PG&E and other utilities operating in these dry Western states is to make their - make sure the equipment they have is safe. And that comes down to really mundane things like tree trimming and making sure that they're keeping an eye on this vast network of lines and poles and towers that age and deteriorate as they - as - you know, as we go on. So the company insists it's dedicated to safety, but critics outside the company keep turning up examples of where it's not getting the job done.

MARTIN: And where are those places? Where is it not getting the job done?

BREKKE: Well, you know, we have one right here in the Oakland Hills where the company was supposed to have taken down a tree that was in a very dangerous place. They had reported they had taken down the tree. And when a court monitor went and - 'cause the company is on probation for a past criminal conviction. When they went and checked this out, they found the tree was still standing, and the leaves were singed. And so this is the kind of thing - that people say they're just not getting the job done.

MARTIN: We appreciate you, Dan Brekke of member station KQED in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.