California utility equipment sparked more than 2,000 fires in over three years
SACRAMENTO - Equipment owned by California's three largest utilities ignited more than 2,000 fires in 3 1/2 years - a timespan in which state regulators cited and fined the companies nine times for electrical safety violations.
How the state regulates utilities is under growing scrutiny following unprecedented wildfires suspected to have been caused by power line issues, blazes that have destroyed thousands of homes and killed dozens of people.
Lacking the manpower and sophisticated technology necessary to monitor more than 250,000 miles of power lines across the state, regulators rely on something of an honor system, with utilities responsible for ensuring all trees and vegetation are cut back far enough from electrical equipment before the onset of dry, high-fire danger conditions.
Destructive wildfires in Paradise, wine country, Ventura County and other areas have prompted California lawmakers to consider new ways to improve regulatory oversight and hold utilities more accountable for prevention.
The California Public Utilities Commission has never fined an electrical utility company for failing to meet safety standards before a wildfire strikes. Instead, the agency fines the utilities for violations after investigations into fires find wrongdoing - and the process can drag on for years.
“The CPUC oversight of investor-owned utilities to prevent electrical or utility-caused wildfires is devastatingly absent,” said John Fiske, a lawyer who represents wildfire victims. “When you're looking at areas that look like they've been bombed in a war zone, and to know that can be prevented with enforcement and oversight, it's widely upsetting.”
Investor-owned utilities are required to file annual reports with state regulators detailing even the smallest of spot fires linked to electrical equipment. Most of the blazes are less than 10 acres in size. And many of the most destructive wildfires in recent years are not included in the data because utilities are hesitant to tie their equipment to costly blazes before state investigations conclude.
Pacific Gas & Electric, the state's largest utility providing electricity from Eureka to Bakersfield, reported 1,552 equipment-related fires from June 2014 through the end of 2017. Southern California Edison, the electricity supplier for 15 million people mostly south of Fresno County, reported 347 fires in that time. Serving a 4,100-square-mile area from San Clemente to the Mexican border, San Diego Gas & Electric disclosed 115 fires in the time period.
Elizaveta Malashenko, director of the safety and enforcement division at the commission, said the agency uses the data to gain insight into the cause of ignitions and found that electrical lines making contact with vegetation and other line malfunctions sparked most of the fires. The data do not include any determinations on fault or show if the utilities violated safety laws.
Malashenko said that simply because the data show there were fires related in some way to a utility's equipment does not mean those fires are connected to safety violations and should trigger a fine or citation. But lawmakers suggest the severity of recent blazes and high number of fires proves the state's methods to prevent disaster aren't working.
In most cases, enforcement follows investigations into massive wildfires that decimate towns and neighborhoods. In a 3 1/2-year period ending in 2017, CPUC said it issued nine citations and fines related to electrical safety violations against the utilities - including $8.3 million against PG&E for the Butte fire and an additional $15 million against Edison for multiple power outages in Long Beach in 2015.
As another form of punishment, the commission has also denied requests by utilities to recover losses from ratepayers if investigations discover negligence and district attorneys file criminal charges for wrongdoing. If utility equipment is tied to wildfires, the companies also face civil suits for damages. Fire-related costs led PG&E this month to announce plans to file for bankruptcy, potentially facing $30 billion in legal liability from the recent wildfires.
This year, lawmakers in Sacramento are raising questions about wildfire prevention and electrical safety oversight, and are considering new legislation to address the issues.
Ideas include small adjustments, such as providing CPUC with more explicit prevention guidelines and assigning a state representative to monitor safety at the utilities. More radical changes, including the creation of a new state entity to enforce safety or investing in sweeping technological advancements to provide regulators with better data, may require additional taxpayer dollars and would be more difficult to accomplish.