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PG&E wildfire plan heightens fire danger in Manteca


The Bulletin

It’s a potentially tragic irony that Manteca officials are preparing for — PG&E intentionally cutting off power to the city to prevent their equipment elsewhere from starting wildfires when specific conditions warrant it could severely elevate fire danger in Manteca.

And if an actual major wildfire is underway elsewhere either in PG&E territory or in Southern California when PG&E intentionally cuts power to Manteca and nearby cities to reduce their financial exposure, it will make things even worse.

The reasons are simple.

Cutting power would knock off the production of treated surface water that flows to Manteca, Lathrop, and Tracy from the regional water treatment plant operated by South San Joaquin Irrigation District. At the same time the Manteca municipal wells that do not have backup generators will stop bringing water to the surface. The city will be able to supply water for drinking and flushing toilets but not much else. Water pressure, critical to fighting fires, would plummet.

If there are major wildfires in California, Manteca will have likely dispatched almost a third of its manpower as part of a statewide mutual aid network. That would leave Manteca with just enough manpower to cover stations and provide basic relief and backup.

 Manteca Fire Battalion Chief Dave Marques, who is in charge of the city’s emergency planning efforts, told Manteca Rotarians during a talk Thursday at Ernie’s Rendezvous Room, that the department in such a situation would be forced to focus on protecting a neighborhood as opposed to concentrating on putting out whatever structure may be on fire.

Complicating matters further is the extremely strong likelihood the Manteca Fire Department would be inundated by power outage related calls as heat-related illness issues would spike. 

Marques noted when power had been knocked out a few years back to a large area of Stockton and Manteca Fire provided an engine and crew to help, they responded to 51 calls all related to medical emergencies triggered by the heat.

Such a situation, should occur, underscores a message city officials have repeated at town hall meetings helping residents prep for a PG&E induced emergency — landscape and lawn irrigation as well as all non-essential use of water would need to be suspended.

Marques has made it clear he has no way of answering questions people pose about the probability of PG&E actually de-energizing power lines to Manteca and surrounding cities. He stressed PG&E has made it clear they will cut power for 2 to 5 days  if they have to do so to avoid their equipment possibly starting wildfires like the one they concede their faulty equipment likely started in Butte County that killed 86 people, destroyed 14,000 homes, and burned 5,000 other structures.

Marques said experts differ on whether PG&E will actually follow through cutting off power to places like San Jose and Manteca when wildfire conditions warrant it in locations often 60 or so more miles away. Marques said Manteca and other cities have a responsibility to prepare for the eventuality given PG&E has advised they will turn off the power if necessary.

He did add that the scenario of the city going without power for days was never incorporated into Manteca’s emergency preparedness plan or that of many other communities. He said a prolonged power outrage tied to a major quake centered anywhere in California could trigger power outages. Preparing for a potential PG&E induced emergency has helped jurisdictions put plans in place to deal with prolonged power outages that could be caused by such a natural disaster.