PG&E expands automated power line shutoff system to help prevent Bay Area wildfires

MILL VALLEY – With hot temperatures and dry conditions these days, wildfire danger and prevention efforts are top of mind for many Bay Area residents.

PG&E is using a fairly new tool more often it says to prevent massive fires. The utility company is going full throttle on a fairly new automated system that will immediately shut off power lines when it detects objects such as broken tree limbs that could spark a fire.

Homeowners in high fire zones like Maryanne Pearson in Mill Valley are doing what they can to reduce the risk of a rapidly growing fire.

“It’s a major worry if there’s any fire anywhere near here that it’s going to spread,” Pearson told KPIX 5.

She and her neighbors hired Bob’s Fire Team to cut down dead tree limbs Wednesday, just days after a garage fire nearly torched an entire home nearby.

“Every time it starts getting warm, like May, June and July, there’s more fear of fire. People just get amped up and they want to get something done,” said Bob Emrich of the tree cutting service.

What started as a pilot program last year called Enhanced Power Safety Shutoff, also known as EPSS, has expanded to all areas considered high-fire risk across the Bay Area and California. 

“Anytime a tree limb or something else comes in contact with power lines, the power automatically shuts off and this helps reduce the likelihood of an ignition,” said PG&E spokesperson Mayra Tostado. 

Pacific Gas and Electric said its new technology has reduced ignitions that could have resulted in fires by more than 80%. 

“The outages are unplanned, unlike Public Safety Power Shutoffs where we proactively shut off power, these outages whenever there is an interruption, they could be happening every day now,” said Tostado.

EPSS is very different from the all too familiar PSPS shut offs PG&E plans and initiates when dangerous weather conditions warrant the move. These automatic shut offs happen without warning.

“I might not like it a lot, but everybody is making plans,” said Pearson. 

Once those lines get shut off, utility crews have to analyze those power lines before greenlighting re-energization, leading to sometimes lengthy outages.

“We have 39 houses (HOA) here and I can’t think of one person that doesn’t want to do everything they possibly can to cooperate with PG&E and the fire department to make sure that we all keep our houses,” said Pearson.

Outages triggered by this automated system averaged about 7 hours during the pilot period. PG&E said that number has decreased to about 4 hours on average this year. 

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