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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

PG&E unveiled a multipronged program Thursday aimed at reducing the threat of future wildfires, including “boots on the ground” to help battle fires and a long-term effort to put up stronger power lines and swap out flammable wood power poles with burn- resistant poles.

Pat Hogan, the utility’s senior vice president of electrical operations, outlined the Community Wildfire Safety Program in an interview Thursday, calling it a response to the “new normal” of severe wildfires due to prolonged drought, extreme heat and the presence of 129 million dead trees in the state.

“Safety of our customers and our community is central to what we do,” Hogan said in a telephone interview.

PG&E is currently fighting a barrage of lawsuits blaming it for poor power line maintenance that allegedly caused the October wildfires which burned nearly a quarter-million acres, destroyed more than 6,000 homes and killed 40 people in the North Bay, where insured losses have nearly topped $10 billion.

The utility’s new program could be bankrolled at least in part by hikes in customer rates. A PG&E spokeswoman said the cost of the program had yet to be determined.

The initiative would seek to bolster wildfire prevention and emergency response efforts, work with customers and first responders to establish enhanced safety measures and make a long-term effort to “harden the electric system to help reduce wildfires and keep customers safe,” a PG&E press release said.

The company’s lawyers, in their first formal response to the lawsuits, attributed the most destructive wildfires in state history to “a confluence of unprecedented weather events” including drought, heavy rains that fostered vegetation growth, record summer heat and a “high wind event” on Oct. 8 and 9.

State investigations into the causes of the fires are ongoing. Santa Rosa city fire investigators determined that PG&E power lines buffeted by heavy winds the night of Oct. 8 ignited at least two small fires in city neighborhoods.

The utility’s new program establishes a wildfire safety operations center that will be set up next month in the company’s San Francisco headquarters, Hogan said. It will operate around the clock during the fire season, which typically runs from April to October or November, he said.

PG&E will contract with firefighters and aircraft to battle wildfires from August to November and assist the utility’s personnel in assessing risks in fire-prone areas, he said. Getting involved in firefighting is “not new to us,” Hogan said, but the program will involve a “significant expansion” of that activity.

PG&E will also install 100 to 200 new weather stations in high-risk areas, including Sonoma County, Hogan said.

Enhancing its vegetation management program, PG&E will clear a space 15 feet on both sides of its power lines, creating a 30-foot fire break “around our infrastructure” that will also provide access for first responders, he said.

As another safety measure, the utility will develop protocols for shutting off power lines in areas where “extreme fire conditions” are present.

Over the long term, PG&E will install new power lines that are stronger and coated with polyethylene to reduce the prospect of sparking when lines strike a bird or vegetation, he said.

Critics have asserted that multiple fires in October were ignited when windblown power lines hit bone-dry vegetation.

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Power lines will also be spaced farther apart to avoid “line-on-line contact” during wind storms, PG&E said.

The utility will, over several decades, replace wooden power poles with poles made of steel or composite material, Hogan said. It will also expand its practice of treating power poles with fire retardant in high-risk areas.

PG&E is “continuing to scope out the costs” of the new program, spokeswoman Deanna Contreras said.

The utility will work with the California Public Utilities Commission’s rate-setting process “to recover costs associated with the state’s increased fire safety regulations and expanded efforts to help reduce the threat of wildfires,” she said in an email.

Hogan said the program would not necessarily add to the utility’s payroll but would involve “repurposing folks.”

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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