15 May 2019

Managing Wildfire Risk

Wildfire Team

The impact of wildfires continues to escalate as utility companies struggle to manage risk.

Image credit: Joanne Francis

Managing the risk of wildfires has been a critical problem in California for many years. Every fire season, California firefighters battle to contain multiple wildfires threatening lives and property. The 2018 wildfire season was the most destructive on record, resulting in at least 108 deaths and burning 1.6 million acres of land, the largest amount of burned acreage in a fire season. The cost to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection in 2018 exceeded 773 million USD. Many of these fires were started by human factors and may be preventable.

The deadliest fire in California wildfire history was the Camp Fire, which started the morning of November 8, 2018, and burned a total of 153,336 acres, destroying 18,804 structures and resulting in 85 civilian fatalities and several firefighter injuries. Fire investigators attributed the cause of this fire to electrical transmission lines owned and operated by Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) coming into contact with tinder dry vegetation during conditions of strong winds, low humidity and warm temperatures. This fire could have been prevented by shutting down power to the implicated transmission lines. Currently PG&E faces up to 50 billion USD in liabilities for this incident. Fire investigators have determined that PG&E was also responsible for 18 previous wildfires in 2017.

These events highlight the need for power companies to make better informed decisions with respect to providing power to their customers or shutting down power to areas at high risk of wildfire. Utility companies face massive risks with much of their equipment located in dry, forested areas where the susceptibility to fire is being exacerbated by climate change. Our project will seek to provide a tool for both utility companies and local governments to visualize and evaluate the fire risk associated with transmission lines and substations and make good decisions as to whether the risk outweighs the impact of turning equipment off.

Our product goes beyond traditional fire danger ratings by incorporating geographically specific weather forecasts and information about local utility infrastructure. It will model wildfire probability and provide a greater level of confidence and insight. Incorporating utility data such as the voltage of power lines helps improve decision making. For making complex and high risk decisions, these product features offer utility companies better predictions and data than has been available to them in the past – all in one place.