Article submitted by Paul Netter, SCE
FRESNO — Big Creek has always had “the hardest-working water in the world,” but after the devastation of the Creek Fire, it might also lay claim to the hardest-working wildfire restoration effort too.
Not to mention the largest restoration effort in Southern California Edison’s history.
Following a wildfire that began on Sep. 4 and has burned more than 375,000 acres, SCE has mobilized a workforce of more than 2,000 personnel, nine laydown yards and 4,800 pieces of equipment to repair the hydro facilities, power poles and wire damaged in the Creek Fire.
The massive restoration effort is underway amid challenges that include damaged and destroyed trees and debris, poor air quality, mountainous terrain and, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic.
COVID-19 safety protocols are the biggest reason for the nine laydown yards, which contain tools, material and equipment, have 358 hand-sanitizer stations positioned across them and far exceed the one-to-three staging areas typically deployed in SCE’s wildfire restorations. The two biggest of those laydown yards — named the Nursery and the Farm — cover 27 and 25 acres, respectively.
To comply with COVID-19 safety protocols in these yards and the restoration site, masks are worn, sleeper trailers are used at 50% capacity, food is individually served rather than buffet style and crews eat in their trucks, trailers and at socially distanced outside tables. The trailers have housed several hundred field workers for the past few months.
However, the smoky air has presented a COVID-19-specific dilemma.
“The overall issue is that due to COVID, it is good to be in open spaces/outdoors, whereas the bad air quality readings require you to stay in recirculated filtered air,” said Tim Coughlin, an SCE principal manager and member of its Incident Management Team for the restoration. “The remedies to each concern are in conflict with one another.”
But, with a combination of COVID-19 protocols including distanced tables in open tents, eating indoors with the use of HEPA filters and weekly COVID-19 testing as well as work stoppages due to the smoky air, remedies were found.
Transformers, which transfer electrical energy across circuits, await use at SCE’s 27-acre Auberry Nursery laydown yard.
Damaged and destroyed trees also conflict with restoration work, especially when there are an estimated 200,000 trees that require mitigation and removal like at Big Creek. Clearing damaged vegetation is crucial to SCE crews doing their damage assessment, repair and restoration work.
Thus, a crucial component of the Creek Fire restoration effort is the nearly 1,200 vegetation management workers — including 153 pre-inspectors and 977 tree trimming personnel — that dwarfs, for instance, the 170 working the Sequoia Complex Fire, using heavy-duty equipment like masticators, feller bunchers and Albach Diamant 2000 wood chippers to clear the way for repairs.
That heavy duty equipment, including cranes, is especially helpful when removing large tree limbs, like the 6,000-pound branches removed recently from a damaged giant sequoia.
The crews are earning praise for their efforts amid challenges that can also include displaced bears and rattlesnakes.
“We are proud of the extraordinary effort all SCE and contract personnel are putting forth to restore service quickly and safely while also removing hazards that could jeopardize our crews, facilities and the public,” said Matt Deatherage, another SCE principal manager and member of its IMT team.
It all supports restoration work that is part of SCE’s risk-informed approach — which goes beyond compliance — in which grid-hardening equipment like fire-resistant composite poles, fire-resistant-mesh-wrapped wooden poles and insulated wire are all replacing damaged equipment in a high fire risk area to combat the growing wildfire and climate change threat.
The insulated wire helps reduce the risk of wildfire by preventing power lines from arcing or sparking if a tree branch or other materials blow into them during extreme weather and has been part of SCE’s ongoing wildfire mitigation efforts in high fire risk areas.
At Big Creek, the ongoing work involves line crews assisted by helicopters airlifting power poles and materials to them on steep mountainsides as well as long-lining linemen to make necessary repairs.
It all adds up to a vast effort to help the Big Creek community get back on its feet.
“Our hearts go out to the communities impacted by the Creek Fire. We appreciate their patience as we work to restore service under difficult conditions,” said Greg Ferree, SCE vice president and incident commander. “This is a Herculean effort and we are coordinating closely with industry and government to rebuild this infrastructure and restore power safely and as quickly as possible.”
In other news
The thank-you’s are in the bag or, in this touching, colorful case, on the bags.
As in the bags decorated by children and volunteers of the Fresno-based Feed a Frontline First Responder Fundraiser that were recently delivered by one of its volunteers to the Farm — Southern California Edison’s second-biggest laydown yard for the Creek Fire restoration — showing appreciation for the SCE crews’ work in restoring the Big Creek community.
There were about 50 of the decorated bags and they were a total surprise to SCE crew members like Henry Lomeli, a senior manager who was blown away by the bags and their “Thank-You,” “We Believe in You” and “We Appreciate You” messages.
“It took some effort on their part,” said Lomeli, a 31-year SCE employee who manages the laydown yard for vegetation management contractor support crews. “Each bag was different, and you could tell it was made with a kids’ warm heart.”
The effort was led by Jenny Rivera, who organized the fundraiser with volunteers that include schools, churches and her customers. She said the goal was to raise $500 “to package meals including burritos inside these bags that were decorated with words of encouragement and gratitude” for first responders.
Well, $27,000 and countless volunteer hours later, the giving has grown to include as many as 5,000 bags.
In addition to SCE crews, the bag-and-burrito beneficiaries have included CAL FIRE, the California Highway Patrol, Madera County Deputy Sheriffs’ Associations and animal rescuers — with Rivera saying any leftover money will go to first responder organizations in Fresno, Madera and Mariposa counties.
“With all the craziness of this year, I think people just really gravitated toward this effort because they want to be part of something good and something worthy because there’s not much you can do during these times,” said Rivera, also the owner of BooBoo Bean Bakery and Café in Fresno.
She will get no argument about its worthiness from Lomeli and SCE’s crews.
“When you see things like that, it kind of touches your heart because a lot of us have kids at home,” said Lomeli. “It takes things to a different level, right? You know you’re doing some good, you’ve come here to help.”
INFOGRAPHIC: LARRY TSUEI
PHOTO CREDIT: ERNESTO SANCHEZ
VIDEO CREDIT: ROBERTO LAZARTE AND ERNESTO SANCHEZ