May 27—LAFAYETTE — Wildfire season is here and with a drought making the fire risk especially high, a Lafayette city councilman is not happy with what one utility is doing to curb the risk.
A PG&E representative told the council that residents who want to report an outage or who have questions about service can call the utility and file a "ticket," the term that the utility uses for logging a problem or complaint, for PG&E to follow up on.
The issue came up during a special council meeting on wildfires, when Councilwoman Gina Dawson noted that faulty PG&E equipment caused a major fire in Lafayette in 2019.
"I would hope that we can get more information on that, so if there is any other equipment that is so comprised, that it's definitely being looked at," Dawson said.
PG&E spokesman Les Putnam said the failures were "unfortunate parts of the system."
Councilman Cameron Burks was having none of it.
"My community does not want to hear instructions about processing a 'ticket' for another failure of your utility," Burks told Mark van Gorder, a spokesman for Pacific Gas & Electric, who along with Putnam attended the May 17 meeting.
Burks accused PG&E of having "a track record of monumental failures."
He added, "You are probably going to learn that the community has very little confidence in your utility agency."
The PG&E representative pushed back, saying filing a ticket was the way the "process works." But he added that he did not want it to appear as if PG&E was dismissing the public's complaints.
"Your process is broken," Burks said. "And I think that (those behind it) know it's broken. I think the state does, too."
In September 2010, a natural gas pipeline owned by PG&E exploded in San Bruno, killing eight people.
In June 2020, the company pleaded guilty to 84 separate counts of involuntary manslaughter and one felony count of unlawfully starting a fire after a 2018 blaze destroyed much of the town of Paradise in Northern California.
Those fires clearly resonated with Burks, who said: "You've killed a lot of people."
Fire season in California usually starts in summer and extends through the fall. But a lack of rain and sometimes high temperatures, including in Contra Costa County, means it has arrived early this year, according to the National Weather Service.
Lafayette and Orinda are vulnerable to fires because the area often gets autumn foehn winds, commonly called "Diablo winds" — the same ones that spread the deadly 1991 East Bay hills firestorm and other nearby major fires. Similar to the Santa Ana winds in Southern California, they are characteristically hot, dry offshore winds that have contributed to some of the state's most destructive fires and can drive mega-fires.
Last year, wildfires burned 4.3 million acres in California, making 2020 the largest wildfire season recorded in the state's modern history, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
This month, Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed a $2 billion investment for new firefighting equipment and emergency preparedness to fight wildfires. Newsom also declared an emergency drought in several California counties, including Alameda, Contra Costa, Solano and Napa counties in the Bay Area.
In 2019, a failed transformer near Camino Diablo Boulevard in Lafayette sent sparks to the ground, igniting vegetation and causing a fire that burned seven acres on both sides of Highway 24 and destroyed three buildings, including the Lafayette Tennis Club. Some residents were evacuated.
During the special three-hour meeting, the council heard from a host of local officials, including from the East Bay Municipal Utility District, who outlined ways they would tackle a major fire or emergency, which included using social media to inform the public.
Representatives from EBMUD told the council that it keeps roadways on its watershed — which covers about 29,000 acres — open to give first responders easy access if a wildfire occurs.
Aaron McAlister, deputy fire chief of the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District, warned the council that the fire danger is high.
"What we saw last year was the 'new normal' that has just continued to evolve," McAlister said. "Around the firehouse, we talk about 'career fires' — fires that you are only going to see once in your career. But I have been to about 15 of these now. "
Because of climate change, fires will likely get larger and longer in duration, McAllister said.
Among the steps authorities are taking is to distribute radios, including to school bus drivers, Lafayette police Chief Ben Alldritt said. He added that they are similar to police radios.
The radios will allow the drivers to get information about fires and evacuation plans in the event phone systems are down.
"It allows our schools to have better communication with each other during emergencies, whether it's a lockdown or a shelter-in-place," Alldritt said.
A $250,000 state grant paid for the devices, plus radios that will be placed on school campuses and given to city department heads to use in an emergency, Alldritt said.
"It's never too late to start," Mayor Susan Candell said about preparing for wildfires.
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