Inmate firefighters work in Boulder Creek on Jan. 20, 2021 after more than a dozen fires broke out in Santa Cruz County.
Firefighters survey damage near Boulder Creek this week.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Burning question: Could wildfires have been avoided had PG&E done preemptive shutoff?

LOOKOUT SPECIAL REPORT: It hasn’t yet been determined if downed power lines sparked rare winter fires that displaced dozens — and still have nearly 10,000 customers in the dark. But it’s clear that downed lines were reported throughout Santa Cruz County, with one county leader calling PG&E’s decision-making process “opaque.”

Widespread power outages and the eruption of unseasonal wildfires in Santa Cruz County this week are once again putting PG&E’s infrastructure — and decision-making — under a microscope.

Unlike during wind events in the fall, the utility did not call for a Public Safety Power Shutoff in Santa Cruz County this week, saying afterward that it evaluated the situation and the criteria for a PSPS were not met.

Cal Fire CZU Unit Chief Ian Larkin is among those wondering how that decision was made.

“I wouldn’t want to second guess what PG&E did,” Larkin said. “But it was just a little alarming. I don’t know. Maybe they didn’t anticipate the winds surfacing at the level that they did here in this county.”

Santa Cruz County Second District Supervisor Zach Friend is also concerned, calling PG&E’s decision-making on public safety shutoffs “opaque.”

“In the last few days there has been an information void in regards to both the decision around whether a PSPS would be initiated — and also for those that ultimately lost power due to natural means when it would be restored,” Friend wrote in response to questions from Lookout.

Firefighting efforts were winding down Thursday in the wake of the blazes earlier this week. Falling trees and branches tore down power lines and destroyed poles, transformers and other equipment across the county Monday night into Tuesday morning.

Cal Fire’s CZU Unit said it responded to at least 21 fires, mostly in Santa Cruz County. Several reached dozens of acres in size, and two, the Freedom Fire near Watsonville and the Panther Ridge Fire in Boulder Creek, prompted the temporary evacuation of more than 100 nearby homes.

High winds whipped through the Santa Cruz Mountains and the entire Bay Area this week, initiating a series of fires and...

The causes of the fires remain under investigation. Some might have sparked when winds stoked lingering embers in the CZU Lightning Complex burn scar. In other cases, fire officials report responding to downed power lines and damaged infrastructure that could have played a role.

Larkin said he couldn’t comment on the causes of specific fires because of the ongoing investigations. “But what I can say is during this wind event, we were dispatched to several incidents that were power line related, that may or may not have had a fire response to that,” Larkin said. “So, a tree in the power line, or a downed power line that was arcing, that potentially could have started a ground fire.”

PG&E said at least 32 power poles, 27 transformers and 147 spans of power line were damaged by the winds, numbers expected to grow as crews continued assessing the damage.

In a statement from the utility company, PG&E Principal Meteorologist Scott Strenfel described the wind storm as a “monster” and the strongest storm of this type he’s seen during his 10 years at the company.

Yet PG&E officials say the conditions in Santa Cruz County didn’t warrant precautionary power shutoffs here. The utility did do so in seven other counties in its service area: Fresno, Kern, Madera, Mariposa, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Tulare.

The utility said that for each weather event, officials review a combination of factors to determine whether power needs to be turned off. Those include low humidity levels — generally 20% and below — and a forecast of high winds, specifically, sustained winds above 25 mph and wind gusts above 45 mph. Additionally, PG&E officials factor in real-time ground observations from its Wildfire Safety Operations Center and crews working across the service territory.

The utility also considers whether a Red Flag Warning has been issued by the National Weather Service, observations of dry material on the ground, and “low moisture content in live vegetation.”

Climate change will create conditions for winter fires more often, but don’t rule out tiptoeing around other disasters...

A Red Flag Warning was not issued for Santa Cruz County during Monday and Tuesday’s winds. According to the National Weather Service, the relative humidity got as low as 23% in Santa Cruz on Monday, and winds reached 35-45 mph in the mountains.

Friend, the second district county supervisor, told Lookout that PG&E’s “overall process for determining a PSPS seems opaque, especially to residents that face the prospect of shutoff.”

Immediately after the windstorm, more than 23,000 PG&E customers in Santa Cruz County lost power. By Thursday morning, the power was still out for 9,892, many of them in the rural San Lorenzo Valley. PG&E estimates it will be able to restore power for about 75% of those customers by the end of the day Friday, with power returning for the remaining 25% over the weekend.

“Regardless of what decision is ultimately made by PG&E they need to over-communicate when it’s anticipated to happen or not happen, for how long, and what resources will be provided to customers during that time,” Friend wrote.

Others on the county board said the utility was probably doing its best given the circumstances.

Fourth District Supervisor Greg Caput said though PG&E has made mistakes in the past, the wind caught many people off guard. “I think they did the best that they could at the time,” he said.

Laura Dapper works on her laptop Thursday at PG&E's community resource center in Scotts Valley.
(Lori Rackl / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Meanwhile, people like Scotts Valley resident Laura Dapper were among about a dozen people spending Thursday at the PG&E community resource center at 100 Enterprise Way in Scotts Valley to use WiFi and get powerbank chargers. The Santa Clara University administrator said she lost power Monday night and it has yet to be restored.

“I don’t particularly blame PG&E right now, but it is a conundrum they’re going to have to solve,” Dapper said. “The fires start if the power goes and sparks something; it has even sparked on my street at one time — the lines sparked and it lit a fire. So now they’ve got that problem on top of wind damage and trying to fix it.”

“I understand, they’re in a tough spot,” she added. “But there has to be a solution for their customers.”

Contributing: Lori Rackl