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PG&E says it will build Paradise power lines underground

Facing intense pressure to eliminate fire risks, PG&E said Wednesday night it plans to rebuild the electric distribution system in devastated Paradise with underground power lines.

The utility, which has been blamed by California investigators for causing the Camp Fire, said the underground lines will make Paradise’s system safer.

“As part of our commitment to help this community recover and to harden our electric system to protect against wildfires, PG&E has decided to build our electric distribution system underground in the town of Paradise and in some of the surrounding areas like parts of Magalia,” utility vice president of electric operations Aaron Johnson said in a statement released by PG&E late Wednesday. Johnson made the announcement at a meeting of the Paradise Town Council.

“We decided to rebuild in this way after a careful review of factors, town planning and safety considerations,” he said.

The announcement came days after Cal Fire investigators officially blamed PG&E for the Camp Fire, which killed 85 people last November and destroyed about 90 percent of Paradise’s housing stock. PG&E had said earlier that it believed the fire started when a metal hook fell from a faulty transmission tower, igniting vegetation on the ground below.

Expected liabilities from the Camp Fire, and the 2017 wine country fires, drove PG&E into bankruptcy in January. With another fire season underway, the company is under intense pressure from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration and others in the state to prevent any major fires this year.

Experts have said underground power lines reduce fire risks but are considerably more expensive. PG&E said it is “still refining cost estimates for the undergrounding project, but the undergrounding will occur at no additional cost to the town as part of PG&E’s overall grid hardening efforts over the coming years.” The utility added that the project will take five years; temporary overhead lines will be installed “where needed to meet individual and neighborhood service as people rebuild.”

Earlier Wednesday, a federal bankruptcy judge approved PG&E’s request to spend $105 million helping Paradise wildfire survivors cope with housing expenses and other issues.

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