PG&E slowed fire-risk mapping of power lines

SAN JOSE - Two days before the deadliest outbreak of wildfires in California history, PG&E and other utilities won the latest in a long series of delays to map where power lines pose the greatest wildfire risk, a report said Sunday.

For the better part of a decade, California’s utilities have helped to stall the state’s effort to map where their power lines present the highest risk for wildfires, an initiative that critics say could have forced PG&E to strengthen power poles and bolster maintenance efforts before this month’s deadly North Bay fires.

State officials began working to tighten regulations on utilities and create the detailed maps after wind-toppled electrical lines in 2007 ignited catastrophic fires in the San Diego area.

But nearly 10 years later, the state Public Utilities Commission - which initiated the process - still hasn’t finished the maps, let alone adopted strict new regulations.

A review of the mapping project by the Bay Area News Group shows that utilities have repeatedly asked to slow down the effort and argued as recently as July that, as PG&E put it, certain proposed regulations would “add unnecessary costs to construction and maintenance projects in rural areas.”

On Oct. 6, two days before the fires, two administrative law judges assigned to oversee the project granted yet another delay at the request of PG&E and other utilities.

The timing of that 74-day deadline extension and the decade of seemingly endless debate about the maps has outraged lawmakers who have been pushing regulators for years to speed up a project designed to prevent catastrophic fires like the ones in Northern California that killed at least 42 people and destroyed more than 8,000 homes and businesses.

“The sad part is the future didn’t arrive before these fires,” said state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-Redwood City, a longtime critic of PG&E and the PUC. “It’s an outrageous example of negligence by a regulatory agency.”

Authorities are still investigating what started multiple North Bay wildfires on Oct. 8, when heavy winds downed power poles, transformers and electrical lines.

But one prime suspect is PG&E’s infrastructure.

Hill and other critics have characterized the yearslong state regulatory efforts as a long, meandering slog, with hundreds of utilities, telecommunication companies, internet providers and other stakeholders fighting over proposed regulations that could add significant costs to their bottom line.

In October 2016, PG&E complained to a judge that the PUC’s plans to complete the map by March of this year was “too aggressive.” And in July, the utility called a proposed regulation to increase the wind speed that power poles must sustain “arbitrary.”

Within the first 90 minutes of the fires in Sonoma and Napa counties, firefighters received reports of at least 10 blown transformers or downed power lines at the same time they were called out to battle 19 structure and vegetation fires.

PG&E has acknowledged that some of its lines and poles went down that first night of the fires, citing drought-ravaged trees and what it insisted was a “historic wind event.” But the Bay Area News Group found that the winds when the fires were first reported were roughly half the speed that power poles and lines are required by law to withstand.

For its part, the PUC acknowledges that the mapping project has taken longer than it would have liked.

“This is important and valuable work,” said Elizaveta Malashenko, the agency’s director of safety and enforcement. “It is frustratingly slow.”

PG&E declined to answer specific questions about the PUC’s project, with spokesman Keith Stephens saying his company is now concentrating on the “safety and the well-being of the customers” impacted by the fires.

At the start of the PUC process, there was a flurry of regulations, most of them focused on Southern California and its notorious Santa Ana winds. But the main goal of creating a detailed map outlining where the entire state faces the greatest dangers of a catastrophic wildfire sparked by power lines remains unfinished.

The PUC now says the process will likely be completed early next year, along with stiffer regulations for areas under “elevated” or “extreme” risks of such fires.

The new rules could include requirements that lines be kept farther away from vegetation and that poles withstand greater wind speeds, the agency said.

While past “interim” maps have been criticized as inaccurate - the devastating Butte fire in 2015 was caused by a downed power pole, but had not registered as a high risk area on older maps - early indications show that the science behind the new maps might prove fruitful.

Although investigators have not determined yet how the Sonoma and Napa county fires started, the likely ignition points occurred in areas determined to have “elevated” and “extreme” risks of devastating wildfires caused by fallen electrical wires, according to Dave Sapsis, the Cal Fire official who is now leading an independent team of climatology, statistics, fire and engineering experts to create a groundbreaking new methodology for determining fire risks from utilities’ infrastructure.

The team is using a supercomputer to crunch weather, topography and engineering data to find the state’s power line wildfire vulnerabilities.

“It looks like our existing map-based methodology was corroborated,” Sapsis said.

Santa Rosa is surrounded by “elevated” and in some pockets “extreme” risk areas for wildfires ignited by utility wires, ?according to the most recent drafts of the PUC’s fire-risk maps. The Adobe and Nuns fires have burned on top of or directly adjacent to areas of extreme risk.

That means if the maps had been finalized, PG&E may have been required to follow more stringent vegetation clearing requirements, tree trimming and inspection guidelines in the North Bay.

The PUC’s mapping project began in 2008, a year after dozens of fires burned more than ?780 square miles, mostly in San Diego County. Several of the worst fires were sparked by power lines that were toppled by Santa Ana winds.

The project initially focused on Southern California and simply borrowed Cal Fire “threat maps” that did not factor in power infrastructure. It resulted in some quick rules changes in advance of the 2009 fire season, including the creation of the “interim” high-fire-threat zones. But the PUC’s effort got ?“bogged down for six years,” concluded a 2015 state Senate subcommittee report on utility safety issues.

That report found that PG&E and other utilities were holding out on agreeing to stricter construction standards until the final maps are completed. The report gave five examples of scheduling delays stretching from 2012 to 2015.

“Parties should avoid additional extensions of the schedule if at all possible,” a frustrated administrative law judge, Timothy Kenney, wrote in May 2015 after the fourth consecutive time extension request by PUC and Cal Fire staff.

Three days later, the state launched a new mapping effort. PG&E and two other utilities ponied up $500,000, and the revived project was supposed to take ?18 months.

The pace of the mapping project has been “frustratingly slow,” said Elizaveta Malashenko, the commission’s director of safety and enforcement.

The commission expects the process to be completed early next year.

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