While the “October Siege” of wildfires continues in California, the worst of the episode may have passed.
The state’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) reports that 1,000 firefighters remain on the frontlines of five active wildfires. At its peak, the siege compelled 11,000 firefighters to battle more than 250 fires that ignited across the state in the short span of time since Oct. 8.
The worst fires cut a path of devastation through Lake, Mendocino, Napa and Sonoma Counties. Several fires there forced over 100,000 residents to evacuate, destroyed more than 8,900 structures and took 43 lives.
As mandatory evacuation orders remain in effect for many areas, residents are only beginning the long and painful process of recovery. Public and private resources have been quickly deployed.
While firefighters battled the blazes, the local utility, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), responded as quickly as the circumstances would allow to power outages and gas shutoffs.
PG&E employs a step-by-step approach to restoring electric and gas service. First, the utility must receive permission from CAL FIRE to enter affected areas. Once it receives access, crews begin to assess damage, which they can do within 12 to 24 hours. Crews can then go on-site to restore power or make necessary repairs to heavily damaged lines and equipment. In cases where repairs are necessary, PG&E estimates power can be restored within 24-48 hours.
Restoration of gas service is complicated by the fact that gas delivery is turned off under fire conditions for obvious reasons. Once it is determined to be safe to restart gas delivery, the gas lines must first be purged of air before natural gas is resupplied.
Jolene Corcoran, president of NECA’s Redwood Empire Chapter has seen the devastation first-hand. One of her sons, who is an electrician, lost his house in the fires. She described the utility’s presence as “PG&E City.”
“There are acres and acres of PG&E trucks," she said.
The utility activated emergency centers with base camps for its crews throughout the area. These base camps have served as staging sites from which to assess damage and restore outages.
While some of the base camps are being dismantled, PG&E reports that the “general public will continue to see an enhanced PG&E presence in these areas for some time.”
PG&E reports that essentially all (99 percent) of the 359,000 customers who lost electric power have now had their power restored. Restoration is expected to reach 100 percent very soon.
The utility reports that it has visited nearly all the gas customers awaiting service, who can receive service, but in most of the remaining cases, it is still unable to gain access to customers’ meters or gas valves to restore their service.
Corcoran said that FEMA is also helping with the recovery. One of the big challenges, she said, has been where to park the FEMA trailers and how to get them access to power.
In addition to offering emergency funds for fire departments and residents who have lost a home or business, FEMA has sent several truckloads of supplies to people displaced by the fires. An estimated 60,000 liters of water, 40,000 prepared meals, 40,000 blankets and 20,000 cots have been supplied. The agency is also delivering generators and mobile communications equipment.