The Mendocino Complex fire is now officially the largest fire in California history, burning over 300,000 acres and counting, and IBEW 1245 members are on the scene doing restoration work in the effected areas. These members are working long days in extraordinarily difficult conditions to bring back power and some semblance of normalcy for the communities that have been devastated by the fires.
Chris Pearson is one of dozens of Local 1245 members working on the restoration effort. Pearson, who usually works as a troubleman out of PG&E’s San Rafael yard, has found himself in a different type of emergency response role at the Mendocino Complex Fire. He’s stationed at the incident command center in Lakeport, where he’s helping schedule jobs, assign them to crews in the field, and keep track of the work as it’s completed.
“This is my first time stepping into this type of position, and it’s been a big learning experience,” he told the Utility Reporter during a phone interview at the end of his fifth day at the fire. “It’s quite the large-scale operation going here … Geographically, it’s such a huge span, from one side [of the fire zone] to the other. The travel distance is definitely a challenge.”
The magnitude of the fire zone isn’t the only hurdle the crews have to overcome. The scorching hot weather, with temperatures nearing 100 degrees on most days, makes everything more challenging. And simply getting in to the areas where they need to be working has proven to be no small feat.
“Getting access into some of these locations has been tough, because the majority of this fire has been in remote areas,” Pearson explained. “Right-of-ways and access roads have been neglected, many are impassible, and we’re doing a lot of work with heavy equipment. It’s tough out there. Everyone’s constantly got to have their heads on swivel, and it’s important for them to stay in communication with each other and with the command center.”
Communication is also not something the crews are taking for granted. With hundreds of different remote work locations, many of which have little or no cell service, there’s no guarantee that the crews will be able to stay in touch with command, so each work group includes someone who serves as a sort of communications liaison, staying close to the crews, but remaining in an area where they can still get phone reception.
“It’s kind of like a leapfrog of communication with the crews and command,” Pearson said.
Pearson noted that the mutual aid coming in from other utilities, including San Diego Gas & Electric, as well as a handful of crews who came all the way down from Washington State, has been hugely beneficial. He also wanted to acknowledge the work of the IBEW 1245 members from the gas side of PG&E.
“The gas guys have been working hand in hand with us, cleaning up job sites after the fact,” Pearson noted. “They’ve been a huge help in terms of taking care of all these other miscellaneous things.”
For Pearson, being in the fire zone hits close to home, as his own house in Santa Rosa was just yards away from the massive Tubbs Fire that took out much of his town last year — in fact, he was just two doors down from the fire containment line. And his father, who also works for PG&E as a troubleman out of Lakeport, was initially evacuated when the Mendocino Complex fire first broke out in late July, but has since been able to return home.
There’s no question that doing restoration work in the fire zone can be emotionally and physically taxing, and it clearly present all sorts of challenges. But Pearson, a self-described “big union advocate,” feels incredibly fortunate to have IBEW 1245 union reps on the ground in Lakeport to handle issues, contractual or otherwise, that may arise.
“There’s been a huge union presence here every day since I’ve been here. We’ve had at least twos reps on site each day, and their names and contact info are posted all around the camp,” said Pearson. “I appreciate that they’re here to answer questions and help with gripes. Even though things have been going pretty smoothly here, there’s bound to be disagreements every once in a while.”
Pictured in the slideshow below are some of the members working in the River Fire zone near Lakeport.
–Rebecca Band, IBEW 1245 Communications Director
Photos by John Storey