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Crews battle generator fires in Northern California after utility cuts power

by Max Resnik, KCRA-TV, Sacramento, Calif. |

Firefighters in three different districts of Northern California’s Nevada County responded to generator fires during planned outages designed to prevent wildfires.

Pacific Gas and Electric initiated an outage Tuesday night, called a Public Safety Power Shutoff, which affected some 48,000 customers' electricity. All power has since been restored.

It was the second round of shutoffs amid fears of how gusty winds might impact the utility's infrastructure and came after approximately 22,000 lost power Monday night.

During these shutoffs, which affect people in the Sierra foothills, many who haven't already are turning to generators as a means of keeping the lights on and refrigerator cold.

The generators are now a cause for concern for firefighters, however, who responded to three fires during the planned shutoffs.

The first happened in Penn Valley around 1:30 p.m. Tuesday on Indian Springs Road, according to the Penn Valley Fire Protection District.

Two more happened Wednesday. The Nevada County Consolidated Fire District responded to one on Country View Way, and the Peardale Chicago Park Fire Protection District responded to another on Eaglesnest Road at the home of Michelle Belmonte Lund.

"I was outside in garden with my daughter, and we were doing some gardening and walking back to the house she said she saw smoke. She went into her little unit, and I came here and saw flames," said Lund. "I immediately dropped my phone and my drink and went running in my flip-flops."

Lund ran to get a hose to put out the fire, but discovered that without electricity, she wouldn't be able to use the hose.

"There is no way to pump water without electricity. So, really freaked out on that," she said. "Thank God there was enough water left over in the reserve that it enabled me to put out the generator. The fire was in the trees, and I just did a quick squirt up, but the generator would flare up. I went back to the generator."

It was a necessary effort as the fire spread to the garage, with firefighters taking more than 20 minutes to reach her rural home, she said.

"You just do what you have to do, and you know you might lose," Lund said.

For more than six years, Lund's used her generator without issue and only during the winter months. The new normal has made generators a necessary component to life now in the summer and fall with the possibility that PG&E will shut off the power.

It's a plan she supports, she said, but she found it ironic that the generators are now starting fires. She also called on PG&E to improve its infrastructure.

"They need to read their owner's manual, have it installed properly and also make sure that if they have a standby generator, that they have the power shutoff that is required by county code as well as PG&E," said Peardale Chicago Park Fire Protection District Chief Jim Bierwagen of all generator owners.

In the Lunds' case, Bierwagen said, the generator was positioned too close to the home.

Bierwagen said that as fire season has become a year-round event, the need for generators is now year-round. As a result, he stressed the importance of maintenance.

"That's one of the points we make. You need to have a generator now for the power shutoffs in the summertime or in the fall as well. So, it's kind of become a year-round issue in the foothills," he said.

Generator fires aren't new to the Sierra, he said, but they typically used to occur during the winter months during rain, wind or snow events.

While most of the fire damage was contained to Lund's garage area, parts of the rest of the home suffered smoke damage.