Fires

As Southern California burns, state tells electric companies to shape up

Watch the Thomas Fire burn above Montecito

The Santa Barbara County Fire Department's Mike Eliason shared this video Tuesday night of the Thomas Fire above Bella Vista Drive near Romero Canyon in Montecito.
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The Santa Barbara County Fire Department's Mike Eliason shared this video Tuesday night of the Thomas Fire above Bella Vista Drive near Romero Canyon in Montecito.

With wildfires raging in Southern California, and Pacific Gas and Electric Co. facing scrutiny over the October wine country fires, state regulators ordered electric utilities Thursday to do a better job of keeping tree limbs and other vegetation away from power lines.

The Public Utilities Commission adopted regulations requiring major utilities to reduce wildfire risk by taking better care of their transmission lines. Cal Fire and the PUC are investigating whether PG&E’s power lines were a contributing factor in the wine country fires, which killed 44 people and destroyed thousands of homes.

“This new policy includes significant new fire prevention rules for utility poles and wires, including major new rules for vegetation management,” said PUC President Michael Picker in a prepared statement.

Regulators directed utilities to increase the “clearances between vegetation and power lines” in high-risk zones. Those areas cover 70,000 square miles, or 44 percent of California’s land. Utilities were also given broader authority to disconnect customers who refuse to allow crews to come onto their property to remove trees that pose a fire risk.

Utilities are under increasing pressure to deal with wildfire hazards. PG&E has already been sued multiple times by victims of the October fires, and has warned investors that claims for wildfire damage could reach several hundred million dollars. PG&E has also said its losses from the 2015 Butte Fire, which burned 71,000 acres and killed two people in Calaveras and Amador counties, would surpass $750 million. The PUC, in a closely watched case, recently denied San Diego Gas & Electric Co.’s requests to bill ratepayers for some of the costs stemming from wildfires that hit its territory in 2007

In the wildfires currently burning in Southern California, the San Diego utility took the proactive step of “de-energizing” a portion of its grid to prevent power lines from igniting vegetation. The action left 17,000 customers without power, although most have had their power restored.

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler

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