Politics

Utilities told to do more to keep power lines from starting fires

Some of the many utility poles and power lines that burned in the Thomas Fire. These poles were awaiting repairs on Dec. 6, 2017 on Highway 150 north of Santa Paula.
Some of the many utility poles and power lines that burned in the Thomas Fire. These poles were awaiting repairs on Dec. 6, 2017 on Highway 150 north of Santa Paula.
Sharon McNary/KPCC

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California regulators approved strict new regulations requiring the state's biggest utilities to do more to prevent power lines and equipment from starting fires, especially during the dangerous wind events.

The move from the California Public Utilities Commission comes on the heels of devastating wildfires this fall in Northern and Southern California that raged out of control because fierce wind storms. 

Despite the timing of those fires, the new rules are a response to wildfires that burned through Malibu and in San Diego County in 2007. Still, the commission's unanimous decision comes at the same time state and local fire investigators are looking into whether power lines sparked any of the recent fires in Southern California.

Since 2007, California power and communications utilities have been fined nearly $120 million for fire, wind and other damage to homes and property caused by failed utility equipment. Southern California Edison has received nearly two-thirds of all fines for incidents blamed on faulty power lines. Edison equipment was associated with more than 240 fires in its service territory between April 2014 and December 2016 (see a map).

California power and communications companies have been fined nearly $120 million after their equipment caused fires, damaged property and harmed workers.
California power and communications companies have been fined nearly $120 million after their equipment caused fires, damaged property and harmed workers.
California Public Utilities Commission

The new regulations create stricter rules for areas with high fire hazards and power lines. The areas include state and federal lands where millions of trees are have died because of drought and beetle infestation, and other areas that have a higher risk of utility-caused wildfires.

The rules require investor-owned utilities like Southern California Edison to complete repairs to faulty equipment in the higher threat areas more quickly, and increase brush and tree branch clearance around overhead power lines.

The new regulations require CalFire to create a statewide map that shows where winds are most likely to cause fires. Such a map could help set new standards for power poles and lines to withstand high winds in the most fire-prone areas.

A portion of CalFire's map of areas with high fire risk in Southern California
A portion of CalFire's map of areas with high fire risk in Southern California
Cal Fire

The new rules also let utilities cut off power to private property owners who refuse to permit utility tree-trimming or tree removal crews onto their land.  The Erskine Fire which burned 280 home near Lake Isabella in June 2016, was caused by a power line located on private property

The state Public Utilities Commission already permits utilities to cut off power to customers over a large region during wind emergencies.

It is rare for utilities to take that step, but last week Edison temporarily turned off the power to customers in Idyllwild at the height of a dangerous windstorm to prevent fires. Fallen power lines can start a fire, so can a tree branch that falls across a pair of power lines. The branch can cause the power to arc, eventually burning through the power lines and causing them to fall. 

Southern California Edison spokesman Brian Leventhal declined comment on the role of Edison equipment in the large fires burning in several locations in its service area, including the Thomas Fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. In a statement released Monday, the company acknowledged that CalFire and local investigators were including electrical lines in their fire inquiries.

"The causes of the wildfires are being investigated by CAL FIRE, other fire agencies and the California Public Utilities Commission. The investigations now include locations beyond those identified last week as the apparent origin of these fires. SCE believes the investigations now include the possible role of its facilities," the statement said.

Such inquiries were routine in any large fire, said CalFire Deputy Chief Scott McLean.

Repair crews replacing power poles and electrical lines that were burned in the Thomas Fire along Highway 150 north of Santa Paula Dec. 6, 2017.
Repair crews replacing power poles and electrical lines that were burned in the Thomas Fire along Highway 150 north of Santa Paula Dec. 6, 2017.
Sharon McNary/KPCC

 

2007 fires inspired new protections

High winds, overloaded and deteriorating power poles and inadequately cleared brush and trees made for a destructive combination contributing to several huge fires in 2007 in Malibu and in San Diego County.

The 2007 Malibu Canyon Fire was caused by three utility poles that were overloaded by several users falling during a Santa Ana windstorm. The PUC fined Southern California Edison $37 million and the NextG Networks communications company $14.5 million. AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and SED were also fined a total of $12 million

While burying utility lines is one way to reduce fire hazards, utilities are not willing to bear the full expense. Earlier this year, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas and Electric sued Laguna Beach after the city passed an ordinance requiring Edison to bury any new and replacement power lines.

In a settlement, the city repealed the ordinance and is putting the question of paying for the work to  residents. The ballot measure, if approved, would authorize the city spending about $20 million to put power lines underground on major city evacuation areas and exit routes. More than 400 homes burned in Laguna Beach 24 years ago.