California Sen. Bill Dodd calls for establishment of a fire warning center

Bringing technology into the battle against California’s catastrophic fires, state Sen. Bill Dodd is pushing for the creation of a state-operated wildfire warning center linked to a network of automated weather stations in high fire-risk areas.

Dodd, a Napa Democrat whose district was hit hard by the North Bay wildfires of 2017, said the system would identify dangerous conditions before fires erupt, allowing time to deactivate power lines and put firefighting resources in place.

His bill, SB 209, introduced this week would put three state agencies - the Public Utilities Commission, Office of Emergency Services and Cal Fire - in charge of the California Wildfire Warning Center.

It would also require PG&E and other investor-owned utilities to install weather-?monitoring stations throughout the fire-prone areas they serve.

“This is a no-brainer,” said Dodd, who co-chaired the special legislative committee that drafted a detailed wildfire response law last year.

The senator said he was inspired by a visit in December to San Diego County, where the utility that serves 3.6 million people has ?177 weather stations spread over 4,100 square miles.

“It was so impressive,” Dodd said, calling San Diego Gas & Electric the “gold standard” for wildfire safety.

PG&E had installed ?200 weather stations across its 70,000-square-mile system by the end of last year and plans to add 400 more this year, reaching a total of 1,300 by 2022, said James Noonan, a spokesman for the utility.

PG&E, which has declared bankruptcy in the face of billions of dollars in wildfire liabilities, has not taken a position on Dodd’s bill, he said.

“PG&E shares the senator’s desire to help keep our customers and communities safe from the increasing risk of wildfires through the deployment of weather stations across the state’s electric grid,” he said in an email.

The utility opened its own wildfire command center at its San Francisco headquarters last year, with data, weather and fire experts tasked with keeping watch for blazes across its service territory. The nerve center is supposed to inform PG&E decision-?makers who initiate safety protocols including pre-emptive power shutoffs during dry-season wind storms - a call the utility did not make last November ahead of the deadly Camp fire in Butte County.

Dodd said the state warning center would have access to existing wildfire alert systems, including high-tech fire detection cameras as well as weather stations, and would “find out where they need more data.”

There are 128 pan-?tilt-zoom cameras installed in four California regional networks, including 15 in the North Bay with another eight scheduled to go live here within a month or two, funded by PG&E and Sonoma Water, the North Bay’s largest drinking water supplier.

Cameras and weather stations combined are an ideal fire safety system, said Graham Kent, a University of Nevada, Reno seismologist who co-?directs the statewide AlertWildfire camera network.

“You need to be data-driven,” he said. “It’s a 21st-century dance that we all have to get better at.”

Dodd said he had no cost estimate for the fire warning center and weather stations envisioned in his bill.

“But it’s a fraction of the cost of fighting just one large wildfire,” he said.

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