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California Utility to Bury 16,000 Kilometers of Power Lines to Prevent Wildfires

FILE - A Pacific Gas & Electric sign is shown outside a PG&E building in San Francisco, Oct. 10, 2019.
FILE - A Pacific Gas & Electric sign is shown outside a PG&E building in San Francisco, Oct. 10, 2019.

California power company Pacific Gas and Electric, whose equipment has caused multiple destructive wildfires over several years, said Wednesday that it would bury 16,000 kilometers of power lines in high-risk fire zones as a safety measure.

The utility, which called the project a multiyear initiative, said it maintains more than 40,000 kilometers of overhead distribution power lines in zones at highest risk for fires, or more than 30% of its total distribution overhead system.

The move by PG&E came days after it said its equipment might have been involved in the start of a recent wildfire in Sierra Nevada, according to a filing by the utility to regulators, published on the internet by a San Francisco Chronicle journalist.

The company emerged from bankruptcy last year. It had sought protection from creditors after wildfires sparked by its equipment in 2017 and 2018 drove the utility's potential liabilities into tens of billions of dollars.

"Following the devastating October 2017 Northern California wildfires and the 2018 Camp Fire, PG&E began to evaluate placing overhead power lines underground as a wildfire safety measure," the company said Wednesday.

As part of PG&E's exit from bankruptcy, California officials established a six-step oversight process to hold the utility accountable if it was deemed to be falling short on safety measures.

Failure on tree trimming

In April, however, the officials voted to toughen oversight of PG&E, saying the utility had largely failed to perform required tree-trimming work near power lines in areas with the highest risk of wildfires.

PG&E, which announced the new safety initiative in Butte County, serves more than 16 million people across more than 180,000 square kilometers in Northern and Central California.

Burying power lines lessens the need for public safety power shutoffs, which are a last resort during dry, windy conditions to reduce the risk of trees touching live power lines and sparking a wildfire.

In 2020, California suffered its most damaging wildfire season on record in terms of acreage burned. As of May, California authorities documented over 1,000 more wildfires across the state this year than had erupted by the same time last year.

U.S. President Joe Biden said last month that the country was behind in preparing for what could be a record number of forest fires this year because of drought and high temperatures.