The Camp Fire started on federal land. This rule would make PG&E clean up its power lines

The U.S. Forest Service is seeking to make it easier for utility companies to remove dry brush and other vegetation near power lines running through forests, such as the PG&E lines on federal land that sparked the deadly 2018 Camp Fire.

The agency, which is part of the Department of Agriculture, announced a proposed regulation last week that would require utilities to specify their plans for clearing brush and other vegetation around power lines that run through national forests. The regulation also would demand that utilities provide a timeline for brush-clearing projects.

The regulation would cut some of the bureaucratic red tape that can slow utilities’ ability to do that kind of forest management, experts say. The federal government manages almost 60 percent of forestland in California

PG&E, the largest gas and electricity provider in Northern California, has been blamed for igniting dozens of blazes in the last couple years. The Camp Fire, which began in Plumas National Forest, was the most deadly and destructive of them all, killing 86 people and destroying more than 18,000 buildings.

That prompted members of Congress to add language to the 2018 Farm bill to encourage more aggressive management of so-called “utility corridors” — areas of the forest where utilities have been granted access to run power lines. The goal is to clear overgrown underbrush and dead or dying trees, which downed or faulty power lines can easily catch on fire.

“In California, it is fairly clear that PG&E did not keep an up-to-date inventory and accomplishment schedule on vegetation clearance on all of their power lines,” William Stewart, director of the Berkeley Forests program at UC Berkeley, said in an email. “ I think the Forest Service wants to make sure that they are sending the same signals to their staff and partners that judges are now sending to PG&E — do proper power line clearance or some entity (or entities) is going to be on the hook for billions of dollars of damages.”

PG&E filed for bankruptcy in January because of wildfire-related claims. The public utility recently put forward a reorganization plan as it seeks to settle its debts to wildfire victims and creditors.

Earlier this week, PG&E temporarily shut off power to more than 48,000 customers across seven Northern California counties. The preventative measure was a response to high temperatures and gusty winds across the Sierra foothills and North Bay, which were forecast to create critical wildfire conditions.

Thom Porter, chief of strategic planning at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) has cautioned that there’s no easy way to reduce the risk of forest fires from power lines. When the Farm Bill passed in December, Porter told The Sacramento Bee that “the utility issue is a particularly complex one.”

Doing more forest management work, such as brush clearing and tree removal, is just “one of the pieces of fixing the problem or reducing the risk,” he said.

A PG&E spokesperson said that the utility was “supportive of legislation to modernize processes for the removal of hazardous trees and vegetation near utility equipment on federal lands.”

“We’re still reviewing the proposed rule,” Brandi Merlo said in a statement. Merlo added that PG&E is continuing to work with the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, Congress, the Trump administration “and our partner utilities to ensure it is implemented in a manner consistent with the law.”

Stewart of UC Berkeley said PG&E has also become much more proactive about clearing forest land near its power lines over the past year. He said he’s heard from many private landowners detailing “how aggressively PGE’s contractors are now moving to reduce vegetation near power lines.”

Stewart spent a recent sabbatical in British Columbia, where the provincial government was zealous about clearing vegetation along power lines, he said. “It made me realize that we just have not done anything similar in California over the past few decades, even if we have much higher wildfire risks.”

Emily Cadei works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where she covers national politics and policy for McClatchy’s California readers. A native of Sacramento, she has spent more than a decade in D.C. reporting on U.S. elections, Congress and foreign affairs for publications including Newsweek, Congressional Quarterly and Roll Call.