State regulators moved Thursday to extend the deadline for a long-awaited blueprint that will identify areas at high risk of wildfires and guide electric companies in public safety precautions for years to come.
The California Public Utilities Commission took little time in its regular monthly voting meeting to unanimously postpone finalizing a fire-threat map that will be used to implement stricter rules for high-hazard zones that it previously adopted in December. The detailed layout was projected before the end of 2017, and due no later than next Sunday, but it became clear to commission staff it would miss hitting that target because of the complexities of taking and applying feedback from multiple stakeholder groups.
The new cutoff allows the map to be completed by July 14, though adoption is still expected sometime in early 2018.
Commissioner Michael Picker, president of the five-member panel, said the final map will be available early next month, at the latest, prioritizing specific threat areas ahead of full implementation of heightened fire regulations.
“There’s just one task remaining: adoption of the map that sets boundaries of the high-fire areas,” Picker said during the meeting. “I expect it will be done in January, possibly February.”
The new rules will require California utility operators to meet higher standards for maintaining electrical poles and wires, clearing vegetation more often in regions associated with elevated risk. The utility companies must also devise annual fire-prevention plans if they operate lines in these designated zones.
Where utilities must abide by the stepped-up regulations is based solely on the forthcoming threat map, which ranks fire-prone areas in a three-tier structure. The final blueprint, produced by a consortium of staff from the PUC, Cal Fire and independent experts in collaboration with the utility companies, began in earnest after several wildfires started by power lines burned large swaths of Southern California in 2007.
“Fortunately, we are in the winter months ... and I’d rather not have them rush it,” said Paul Lowenthal, assistant fire marshal for the Santa Rosa Fire Department and leader of the city’s fire debris task force. “If they need the time for a solid product that’s helpful to our community and doesn’t negatively impact us in the meantime, then it sounds beneficial for our long-term needs.”
The origin of this past October’s firestorm that killed 24 people and destroyed 5,130 homes in Sonoma County is still being reviewed, and the result of Cal Fire’s investigation may still be several months out. Pacific Gas & Electric, the region’s publicly traded utility company, has become the focus of several lawsuits despite its assertion that private power lines maintained by a third party may have caused at least one of the fires.
“We are actively preparing our multi-faceted plan to start executing the new requirements once the commission makes a decision,” a PG&E spokesman said in an emailed statement. “We will continue to work with the commission and adjust our plan as we implement operational changes.”
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @kfixler.