Calif. looks for answers to growing wildfire threat

The California Public Utilities Commission held a special meeting Wednesday to look at ways the state can reduce the impacts of deadly wildfires


By Rob Nikolewski
The San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN FRANCISCO — The California Public Utilities Commission held a special meeting Wednesday to look at ways the state can reduce the impacts of deadly wildfires.

Utilities, including San Diego Gas & Electric, discussed their policies for “de-energizing,” or shutting off, power lines.

Fire crews work among destroyed homes at the Rancho Monserate Country Club community. (Photo/AP)
Fire crews work among destroyed homes at the Rancho Monserate Country Club community. (Photo/AP)

The commission’s president cited statistics showing more people moving into high fire hazard zones.

The meeting also covered whether California should adopt procedures adopted by other states, such as how East Coast states prepare for hurricanes.

Searching for answers as wildfire threats grow. Here’s the full story:

For the Californians affected by the deadly swath of wildfires that blazed through the state late last year, it’s no secret the fire season has grown more deadly.

Easing the impacts of future blazes was the central topic of a special meeting hosted by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) on Wednesday in its offices in San Francisco that brought together officials from the commission, the state’s investor-owned utilities and firefighters.

Daniel Berlant, the chief of planning and risk analysis at Cal Fire, said lightning strikes account for between 2 percent to 5 percent of wildfires and about 95 percent are traced to “human-caused” ignitions, including power lines and vehicles.

After the deadly 2007 wildfires in San Diego County, an investigation by the CPUC determined the Witch and Rice Canyon fires were caused by sparks from downed wires and the Guejito fire was caused when a lashing wire hit an SDG&E power line.

Utility officials discussed their policies for shutting off power when they determine when the threat of wildfires are high — a process called “de-energizing” power lines.

“They are something of a last resort for us,” said Phil Herrington, senior vice president at Southern California Edison.

Dave Geier, senior vice president at San Diego Gas & Electric, said the utility shut off about 12,000 customers during the high-wind conditions surrounding the Lilac Fire last December that burned 4,100 acres in Bonsall, destroyed 157 structures and damaged 64 others.

“Sometimes (de-energizing is) the only way to protect our customers from a fire safety perspective,” Geier said. “The reality is with the electricity on, you really can’t stop that very first spark.”

SDG&E received criticism from some customers who said they had their power cut off with little warning and others who said winds in some of their neighborhoods were mild.

Four weeks ago, San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob called for the CPUC to launch an investigation into SDGE’s decisions to shut off power last December.

Jacob and other critics have suspected SDG&E was quick to shut off power after the utility lost a case before the CPUC.

Last November, all five commissioners denied SDG&E’s request to pass onto ratepayers $379 million in costs related to the 2007 wildfires. The utility is challenging the decision, saying the fires were the result of “the worst Santa Ana wind event” the region had seen at the time.

Geier said the commission should also look at establishing standards for water and telecommunications outlets when fire risks are high.

“It seems logical to us that they would have backup systems that would allow them to carry through during power outages,” Geier said. “Then you have water for the firefighters and communications for the customers.”

CPUC president, Michael Picker said there are roughly 4 million people living in 1.4 million structures in vulnerable areas.

“More and more people are moving into high fire hazard areas,” Picker said. “But customers complain that in the middle of windstorms they have no electricity, they have no telecommunications, they have no Internet. This is a challenge. There’s a central conflict here.”

Elizaveta Malashenko, the director of the CPUC’s Safety and Enforcement Division, said it may be helpful to apply the lessons states on the East Coast use when dealing with threats from hurricanes.

“In Southern California when we had those Santa Ana conditions, yes you are aware of it, you hear it on the news but you’re not preparing for it the way they prepare for a Level 5 hurricane hitting Florida,” Malashenko said.

But at the same time, Malashenko said drawing on best practices used by other states may have limited applications in California. For example, the state already has the nation’s most aggressive requirements when it comes to utilities maintaining and clearing vegetation around power lines.

“We really don’t have any low-hanging fruit here,” Malashenko said. “There really isn’t anything very apparent that jumps out and says, oh this state over here is doing it a lot better and we should just do what they’re doing.”

Stephen Cieslewicz, an independent expert on utilities vegetation management, talked of a policy of “planting the right trees in the right places,” that is, trees that may have a wide canopy but do not grow tall enough to come in contact with power lines.

He said ratepayers in New Zealand are responsible for paying the maintenance costs for the wrong types of trees they plant near power lines. Cieslewicz said he does not necessarily think the New Zealand policy would work in California but said, “Here in the states, 100 percent of ratepayers are footing the bill for the bad planting choices of 20 to 25 percent of the customers out there.”

Joe Tyler, deputy director at Cal Fire, said four of the October fires in Northern California made the list of the state’s worst fires as judged by the number of structures destroyed. The Tubbs Fire near Santa Rosatopped the list.

The December fires in Southern California that included the Thomas and Lilac fires saw 13 days of red flag wind conditions, a state record.

“The fire season in California is now at least 78 days longer and in some cases, if you’re in Southern California, it never ends,” said Kim Zagaris, fire and rescue chief for Cal OES.

Copyright 2018 The San Diego Union-Tribune

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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