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California Utility Vows to Improve Wildfire Prevention

FILE - Flames burn near power lines in Sycamore Canyon near West Mountain Drive in Montecito, Calif., Dec. 16, 2017. The nation's largest utility, on Feb. 6, 2019, promised to overhaul its wildfire-prevention measures in response to its role in starting s

Up to 5 million California customers could temporarily lose power this year in the name of wildfire prevention if regulators approve Pacific Gas & Electric’s $2.3 billion safety proposal submitted Wednesday.

PG&E unveiled the preventive blackout strategy for the first time late last year, getting regulatory permission to turn out the lights on 570,000 customers living in wildfire-prone areas during dangerous weather.

In a regulatory filing with the California Public Utilities Commission, PG&E asked for permission to cut power during wildfire threats throughout its entire system serving 5.4 million customers in the northern and central parts of the state.

Emergency, not routine

A consumer advocacy group says it’s disappointed with the utility’s emphasis on blackouts.

San Francisco-based The Utility Reform Network says PG&E’s proposal to shut power during wildfire threats should be an emergency response only rather than a routine preventive measure.

Spokeswoman Mindy Spatt called on PG&E to make improving the safety of its equipment and training of its workers more of a priority than cutting power.

“It puts customers in harm’s way,” she said.

Consumer advocate Erin Brockovich, who famously took on Pacific Gas & Electric Co. in the 1990s, stands with wildfire victims and speaks outside the state Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Jan. 22, 2019.
Consumer advocate Erin Brockovich, who famously took on Pacific Gas & Electric Co. in the 1990s, stands with wildfire victims and speaks outside the state Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Jan. 22, 2019.

Overhaul wildfire prevention

The utility also promised to overhaul much of its wildfire-prevention measures in response to growing legal, financial and public pressure for its role in starting some of the most destructive blazes in California history.

The embattled utility also vowed to increase inspections, cut more trees and work with forestry experts to lessen its role in starting wildfires.

A new state law passed in response to the destructive 2017 wildfires required the state’s utilities to file their wildfire-prevention plans with the California Public Utilities Commission. The agency has scheduled several public meetings to review and amend the proposals before they are adopted.

Federal judge steps in

A federal judge who said he’s skeptical of PG&E’s safety commitment also demanded the wildfire plan.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup is threatening to impose sweeping prevention measures on the utility, proposals PG&E said could cost as much $150 billion. The utility said Wednesday its plan will cost between $1.7 billion and $2.3 billion.

Alsup ruled last month that PG&E’s response to a 2017 wildfire violated probation terms included in its felony conviction for a deadly 2010 natural pipeline explosion in a San Francisco suburb.

In response, Alsup proposed PG&E workers inspect, document and rate every inch of its 2,400 square-mile electrical system and remove or trim trees threatening to touch equipment and start fires. PG&E said that could require removing up to 100 million trees. Alsup said he will determine PG&E’s sentence later.

Tree removal, wire insulation

On Wednesday, PG&E proposed removing 375,000 trees this year after cutting down 160,000 last year. PG&E also said it would increase in-depth pole inspections from 9,400 last year to 40,600 this year and build 200 weather stations in addition to the 200 existing stations.

The utility said it also planned to bury underground or wrap in insulation 150 miles of bare wire next year and 7,100 miles over the next decade.

State fire authorities blamed PG&E’s equipment for starting 17 major wildfires in the last two years. The San Francisco-based utility is facing more than 1,000 wildfire-related lawsuits. The utility filed for bankruptcy last month, saying the lawsuits could cost more than $30 billion.

Seven other utilities, including Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric, also submitted plans Wednesday, but none included the significant reforms PG&E was proposing.